Flames, Jets fans looking forward to special evening
ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency
|L-R, Flames fans Candis Legacy and Kelsie Zebrun outside the Scotiabank Saddledome. (DARREN MAKOWICHUK/QMI AGENCY)
Whether you are a fan of the Winnipeg Jets or the Calgary Flames, tonight's game at the Dome has been a long time coming.
For Jets faithful, the wait stems from the devestating departure of a beloved franchise that took 15 years to return.
For Flames supporters, it seems almost as long since the locals have had a first round pick of their own in the lineup who may actually live up to expectations.
Sure, he's several years away from proving he's an NHLer or a star, but the emergency call-up of Swiss junior sensation Sven Baertschi understandably has the locals all a tizzy, as it appears the club's 13th pick overall from last summer indeed possesses the type of mad skills that may just allow him to be an impact player at the next level.
Averaging an astonishing two points a game in Portland this year despite a lengthy mid-season concussion, the 19-year-old sniper may prove to be the Flames' first bona-fide NHL star taken in the first round since Dion Phaneuf went ninth overall in 2003. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1984 when Gary Roberts was snapped up 12th to find a day the Flames scouting staff really got it right in the first round.
(Don't forget, Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr were drafted in the first round by Dallas and Colorado, respectively).
While GM Jay Feaster has already gone out of his way to limit expectations, it's fair for fans to get excited about a sneak peak of a kid whose development has likely even exceeded management's expectations to date.
For those wearing blue on their jerseys tonight, it's not about any one player at all. Instead, the celebration is about a group of youngsters who migrated from Atlanta to the unknown north only to be embraced by a community that has truly helped elevate their game to shocking heights.
Winners or not, it's understandable every person in Southern Alberta with Manitoba ties has spent the last five months scrounging and pleading for tickets to tonight's contest, which may prompt more than a few tears of pride before the opening faceoff.
It was 1996 when the Jets moved to Phoenix -- a day Morris Lukowich recalls vividly.
Tonight, the longtime Calgary resident will be in the stands to salute their return.
"Sure, it will be emotional," said Lukowich, 55, a four-time 30-goal scorer for Winnipeg from 1978-85.
"It's sentimental, inspirational"¦ it's just one of the best stories in hockey. When the team left, it had to go. There were too many reasons. It was a sad day -- I can remember listening in my kitchen and I had a cry -- I was very sad by the whole thing. Hockey deserves to be there."
Insisting he always believed that with a salary cap, a new building and a well-heeled owner the Jets could return, Lukowich has been caught up in the euphoria that has seen the MTS Centre crowd will its team to 21 wins.
"When you've played for an NHL team, that place is special," said Lukowich, the face of the Jets franchise for several years after the club graduated from the WHA in 1979.
"There are so many people from Winnipeg here - I run into people all the time who say they saw me play. Even some young people. There will be other people like me who became Flames fans, and now, all of sudden, their team is back, and I think it will be awesome "¦ for everyone."
Indeed, fans of both teams have plenty to cheer about tonight, especially since both clubs are in the thick of playoff races.
"I hope they tie because both need a point," Lukowich said with a chuckle.
"After that, let the best team win."
Eric Francis appears regularly as a panellist on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada