Flames link up to find unity

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

For all we know, the Calgary Flames played paint ball in the wilderness.

Nothing like inflicting a bit of pain and punishment in the name of good, old-fashioned competitive fun.

Maybe it was to hit the links at the Banff Springs or one of the beautiful Canmore courses and enjoy the last of what's been an incredible Indian summer followed by a massive Texas hold 'em tournament.

Or maybe they were doing "trust" exercises -- catching each other or working together to climb a mountain.

Either way, this weekend was a perfect time for a Banff getaway.

Rest assured, though, the power vacation was more than just R 'n' R in the final days before the NHL season kicks off.

You know head coach Mike Keenan had a trick or two up his sleeve when he gathered the troops for a few days in the mountains --mainly in the hopes of building more unity.

This year's Flames team will have seven to nine players who weren't in Calgary when the 2007-08 season began. That's about one-third of the roster.

"What we're trying to do is integrate quite a few new players," said Keenan before getting the team away from the glare of the media and the lights of the city. "The people returning understand what's expected of us and understand the system we're trying to employ. They understand the needs of this franchise and the community.

"At the same time, it's an opportunity to get to know their teammates. A lot of guys who have come in here have families and have responsibilities with their families, so this is an opportunity for the group to be together, primarily in a non-hockey environment, to develop the socializing of the team."

Recent history has proven Keenan's quest to be needed.

In the next couple of days, the Flames' roster will be cut from 26 to the limit of 23 and -- based on the traditional plan (14 forwards, seven defencemen and two goalies) -- the likely scenario would mean one forward and a couple of blueliners will be packing their bags for other locales. It could mean the AHL's Quad City Flames, another NHL squad or even Europe.

Much will depend on whether anybody out there is interested in Rhett Warrener and his US$2.5-million salary and/or Anders Eriksson at US$1.5 million.

Over the past couple of days, the Flames' coaching staff and the leadership group have been working hard to make sure those around when the squad opens the season Thursday in Vancouver genuinely are a team.

As we saw here back in 2004, anything can happen by compiling a group that believes in each other and pulls in the same direction.

The last few seasons, though, that degree of unity hasn't been there.

Among the myriad issues that prevented the Flames from becoming the team they were capable of being was players not on the same wavelength as the rest, placing personal agendas over the big picture.

They're the ones who have asked to be traded or couldn't be counted on unless they received top powerplay time, top-six forward usage and the like.

It's not just been one or two guys in that category, either, and it cost the Flames dearly in the regular season, making life even more difficult in the playoffs.

It appears this year's edition has been built with more character in mind. Gritty players added over the past couple of seasons were chosen with the belief they'll have more of a team-first philosophy.

It's a good first step, but creating that chemistry takes more -- mainly familiarity and time.

Heading to the mountains has the potential to speed the process -- even if it's not a sure-fire answer -- but the Flames need to try anything.

In each of the past three seasons, they were sub-.500 after the first month's worth of action and recovered to make the playoffs.

The last couple of post-seasons, however, they faced uphill climbs by sitting among the lower seeds. A quick start will go a long way to earning a higher seed for playoffs and a better chance in the chase for the Stanley Cup.

Finding the elixir to make it happen would be the best-case scenario for the Flames.


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