Flames draft failures were champs once

STEVE MACFARLANE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:21 PM ET

Before they were chumps, Daniel Tkaczuk and Rico fata were champs.

Widely known as the Calgary Flames’ biggest NHL draft busts because of their sixth-overall selections in the 1997 and 1998 drafts, it’s easy to forget their roles on the 2001 Calder Cup winning St. John Flames.

“At some point in time, when you look back at your career, those kids can look back and recognize they were champions at one point in time in the American Hockey League,” said Jim Playfair, their coach out east that season, who now leads the Flames’ current minor-league affiliate, the Abbotsford Heat.

“Both those kids were huge parts in our team winning a championship that year.”

So was Steve Begin, an unheralded second-round pick from 1996 who went on to a respectable NHL career as a hard-working checker.

Tkaczuk and Fata couldn’t cut it at the next level.

Of course, they didn’t have the luxury of avoiding the intense scrutiny that comes with being top picks.

“The expectations for those two players were a lot higher based on where they were drafted. Whether it’s fair or not, it is what it is,” Playfair said.

“It was a bit of a struggle for both of them with the amount of pressure either they put on themselves or in combination with what they put on themselves plus what the organization and everybody else put on them.

“The expectation was that they were going to come in and put the organization back in the playoffs.”

Oops.

Instead, the dark years were born for a Flames organization and city starved for the post-season. Seven seasons without it from 1998 to 2004 are viewed as the most disappointing in the team’s 30-year history.

Fata and Tkaczuk will always be tied to that despite their impressive potential.

“Rico had great, great speed and played a real simple game. I think he just never caught on to the consistent level of play in the National Hockey League,” said Playfair. “He had a real good career in the minors.

“Danny was a smart player, a skilled playmaker.

“What I saw out of them, they were both really good people, they fit into the team environment very well, and they played very hard for us. They were really important parts of the team winning a championship.”

The championship likely ranks as the highlight of their pro careers.

The back-to-back draft positions easily rank as the lowest point of Flames draft history.

“It’s pretty rare to find an organization that has two No.-6 overall draft picks and neither one of them pan out,” admitted Playfair.

“But it’s a tough thing. Those scouts work their tails off all winter long and they draft a player and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.

“It’s a hell of a gamble they’re entrusted with.”

steve.macfarlane@sunmedia.ca


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