Always centre of attention

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:44 AM ET

After years of rumours, Darryl Sutter finally came clean on his long-standing preoccupation with Olli Jokinen.

A long-distance relationship that started out as a crush and slowly morphed into an obsession was consummated yesterday with the acquisition of a man who is quite literally the first legitimate No. 1 centre the Flames have had since Joe Nieuwendyk circa 1995.

When asked how long he'd pursued the 6-ft.-3, 215-lb. pivot, Sutter admitted yesterday it dated back to 2003, "when Mike (Keenan) was (coaching him) in Florida."

Never before armed with enough organizational depth to make a legitimate pitch for his dreamboat centre, Sutter finally felt comfortable enough with his prospects to cough up a first-rounder (his choice, this summer or next), Matthew Lombardi and Brandon Prust for the 30-year-old Finn yesterday.

Undaunted by rumours Jokinen is a dressing-room malcontent or the fact he's never played an NHL playoff game, Sutter was so determined to grab a big body for the rigours of the Western Conference playoffs, he made the move without even picking Keenan's brain.

"Mike didn't know anything about this until I told him last night," said Sutter when asked if his coach had pushed hard to be reunited with the four-time 30-goal scorer.

"My brother Duane spent more time in Florida (as director of player personnel) knowing Olli than Mike did."

Coupling the Jokinen acquisition with a whimsical swap for former Flames rearguard Jordan Leopold, Sutter made by far the biggest splash on trade deadline day to further bolster the argument Calgary is amongst the NHL's elite.

It's certainly the deepest squad we've seen here since the early '90s.

Both Prust and the frustrating Lombardi were easily expendable, allowing the team to add depth and character without disrupting the current division leaders.

Sutter was unable to do the same last March when the Panthers wanted a top-three defenceman and draft picks for Jokinen.

Those who bring up Jokinen's playoff absence need to be reminded he's played for four of the league's most inept, irrelevant franchises. Keenan took great exception to a suggestion on TSN that Jokinen was a dressing-room malcontent.

"For (commentator) Matthew Barnaby to make comments about something he doesn't know about ... he really is just trying to create good television for himself," said Keenan.

Describing the trade as a "dream come true," Jokinen's season should immediately rebound in an organization and a city where hockey matters. He must simply blend in to a tight-knit Flames group with plenty of leadership that has created a culture he's sure to buy into.

The Flames have developed into one of the league's top handful of clubs and no player will be allowed to disturb what Sutter, Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr and several others have built over the years. He doesn't have to be a star. He just has to do his part.

Averaging well over 300 shots a year, it will be entertaining to see how he fits between Iginla and Mike Cammalleri, who also rank amongst the league leaders in that area.

Previously describing Daymond Langkow as a "1-A" centre, Sutter landed the No. 1 he'd been seeking for years.

"It's a good fit because of his size," said Sutter, whose love affair with Jokinen will last at least one more year at US$5.5 million. "He's a big, physical centre who scores and can play against top players on other teams."

And he's finally a Flame, setting the stage for what could be the first of many happy endings this season.


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