CALGARY - He prides himself on the connection he has with his own audience, so it’s no surprise Calgary Flames president Ken King empathizes with the many in Winnipeg celebrating the return of NHL hockey this week.
“That’s the great joy of the game — there’s lots of economics, and there’s lots of different things. But the true and the great joy of the game is the passion of the fans that really drive it,” King said Tuesday as Winnipeggers celebrated in the streets.
“It’s just wonderful to see that passion exhibited in Winnipeg — no surprise.
“Great for hockey, great for the country, great for the city …”
And for his Flames?
“Awesome,” King continued. “We get another prairie rival — another national, prairie rival. We’ve got four teams now that are going to love to hate each other, and that’s great for competition, great fun for fans …
“Really look forward to it.”
Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg.
The fearsome four ... at least that’s what most will expect when they play each other, despite the fact the Jets — or whatever they’ll be called in their new incarnation — have been out of the NHL loop for almost two decades.
“I don’t think it will take too long to renew that old rivalry,” said Flames defenceman Steve Staios, a pending unrestricted free agent who figures the number of Jets jerseys that pop up at the Saddledome when the two teams clash next season will light a fire under the old Smythe Division rivarly that saw the Jets, the Flames, the Canucks and the Oilers scratch and claw at each other annually.
“It pisses you off.
“It starts with the fans and how much they enjoy the rivalry games, and it filters down to the ice.”
An original member of the Atlanta Thrashers expansion team, Staios is disappointed things didn’t work out in Georgia, but he’s even more enthusiastic to see what happens now that the franchise has been relocated to Winnipeg.
That sunk in as he watched the city react to the official news Tuesday.
“You think about it, but you don’t realize the impact until you see how the fans reacted today and really how deserving that city is of having a team,” Staios said. “I’m just really happy for the fans of Winnipeg and Canadian hockey fans overall.”
Selfish reasons to celebrate are also easy to pick out for the Flames.
“It’s gonna be a short trip,” King said with a chuckle of the 90-minute flight to Winnipeg as opposed to more than double that to head to Atlanta.
For now, realignment will wait a season, but you can bet they’ll play more than just once or twice a year in the future.
“Ultimately, I’m not sure where they’re going to be divisionally, but we’re among a smaller group of teams that has the most brutal travel schedules,” King said.
“Whenever we can pick up a short flight on a road trip, we’re awfully happy to have them.”
And the club is pleased to see another Canadian city celebrate NHL hockey again.
“Repatriation of a beloved team — albeit a different team — I think there can be few things more satisfying for the province of Manitoba and the city of Winnipeg than to come back into the league.
“And do it with a great ownership group and some national rivalries.
“We really wish them well — except when they play against us.”