Power player

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:08 AM ET

Save for one steamy evening in Montreal when the Flames carried Stanley's mug all the way back to Calgary, yesterday may very well have been the greatest day in franchise history.

Two months before opening the club's 25th anniversary season, GM Darryl Sutter sat in front of a packed boardroom to announce a quarter-century-long trend had been bucked: The team finally found a way to keep a superstar past unrestricted free agency.

Thanks to the new CBA, which made days like yesterday possible for small market clubs like Calgary, what would normally have been a teary-eyed goodbye from another departing fan favourite turned into a celebration of a new era that will see Jarome Iginla stay with the Flames for three more years.

"It probably is, outside of winning the Stanley Cup, one of the biggest days in our franchise's history," agreed Flames co-owner Harley Hotchkiss, who helped shape the CBA that is already paying off for his team.

"We've had some great moments here but I haven't felt this way -- from a business and hockey perspective -- in 10 years. It's a unique day and we couldn't have made this happen without the new CBA."

The same could be said in Edmonton and Vancouver yesterday where franchise players Chris Pronger and Markus Naslund also chose to sign long-term with teams that previously held relatively little appeal.

It was undeniably a great day for Western Canadian hockey fans who have long seen rebuilding efforts set back by star departures. As Flames president Ken King repeats, for the first time in decades brains matter more than bucks.

"This is a great day but it kind of gives you the sense there are going to be a lot of good days ahead," beamed King.

"There were many good days in the 80's -- the pinnacle coming in '89 -- but there've been far too few since."

Although the Iginla signing alone would have been enough for Flames fans to start celebrating yesterday, there were three other significant moves Iginla and the team reveled in.

One night earlier, the Flames signed established veterans Darren McCarty and Tony Amonte to previously unthinkable deals. Not only did it bolster the lineup of the Stanley Cup finalists, it also marked one of the few times the club has been able to pluck meaningful free agents of late.

Add to all this the fact Jordan Leopold -- a brilliant defenceman with unlimited star potential -- quietly agreed to a deal of his own in Calgary yesterday.

"It is one of the positives of the CBA -- teams will be able to keep players who they've watched grow up into stars," said Iginla, who was qualified at $7 million US a year ago and will wind up making exactly that each of the next three seasons.

"I've been excited every year but without question this is the most exciting year for so many reasons."

While the CBA opened the door for the Flames to keep Iginla at a time when all other previous stars had to leave, Iggy's agent Don Meehan credited Sutter and the Flames owners for throwing all their cards on the table and showing their unwavering commitment to Iginla long term.

"If they were vague or indifferent it may have been more complicated for us to commit," said Meehan. "As a proud Canadian, when the greatest player in the world commits to a team like Calgary it makes everybody smile."

Especially in Calgary where there's little doubt the team is on the verge of something big.

"Quite honestly we've signed the number one free agent in the market -- restricted or unrestricted," said Sutter, who risked losing Iginla to unrestricted free agent status next year without compensation.

"If he's not the best player in the world he's certainly one of them," added Hotchkiss.

"It's not just how he plays on the ice -- he's a real fit for the community. He's done so much for us. We're in a new era -- a whole new environment and it's exciting."

Soak it up Calgary -- it took 24 years to happen.


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