Champs in our hearts

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 2:06 PM ET


 TAMPA -- One goal away.

 A controversial one at that.

 One of the most celebrated playoff runs in Stanley Cup history fell agonizingly short Monday night when a Calgary Flames team powered by little more than grit and heart fell in Game 7 to a Tampa club that had, well, everything.

 Ending a magical two-month odyssey that saw a city embrace a team and a sport like it never had before, the Flames' 2-1 loss to the Lightning punctuated the type of sweeping celebration that could never be recreated.

 Seven years without playoff hockey was followed by this, an unexpected 26-game foray into the toughest tourney in sport that not only turned the Flames into Canada's team but bolstered a level of civic pride no city can match.

 Neighbours who hadn't met in years gathered at one another's houses on game nights, families so often fractured by rigorous schedules assembled together for three-hour segments every couple of days and school children spent days crafting heartfelt banners that hung outside the Flames dressing room.

 Every third or fourth car was adorned with a tiny Flames flag and everyone wore garments of red for work or play as the NHL's small-market David slayed Goliath after Goliath after Goliath.

 They opened against the Vancouver Canucks, a team that first tested Calgary's resilience with a devastating triple overtime win in Game 6 at the 'Dome, then pushed the Flames to overtime again in Game 7.

 It was there Martin Gelinas scored his first of three consecutive series-clinchers to tie an NHL record and earn the nickname 'The Eliminator.'

 Then came the Presidents' Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings, a team many pegged for Stanley Cup glory.

 Heading into the storied confines of Joe Louis Arena for Game 5 tied 2-2 in the series, the Flames appeared, for a time, out of their league.

 It was precisely then Craig Conroy stepped up to score a game-winner that led to Gelinas' dramatic overtime killer in Game 6 that sent 50,000 to 17 Ave. S.W. -- The Red Mile -- for the first of many stirring street celebrations.

 Suddenly, as the only Canadian team left of the four squads standing, they had the attention of a nation.

 Canada's Team.

 Peter Mansbridge flew to Tampa to air a one-on-one chat with the new face of hockey, Jarome Iginla, who used these playoffs to carry a team and introduce himself as the world's best.

 Along with his soft hands and an edge that saw him fight in three of the four series his club played in, he carried with him that sparsely bearded smile that makes Albertans so proud every time they see it.

 Controlling the Sharks series as he did the previous two, Iginla helped oust the Pacific Division champs in a six-game series in which Miikka Kiprusoff proved his record-setting season and unlikely Vezina nomination were no flukes.

 Along the way, players such as Shean Donovan, Ville Nieminen, Steve Montador, Rhett Warrener, Andrew Ference, Chris Simon, Oleg Saprykin, Marcus Nilson, Dave Lowry and Stephane Yelle took turns becoming heroes and household names while key players such as Denis Gauthier, Matthew Lombardi, Dean McAmmond, Steve Reinprecht and Toni Lydman sat on the sidelines, crushed by injuries.

 Even AHL callup Mike Commodore became a folk hero by stepping in as a sixth defenceman, his gangly orange mop-top spurring thousands to wear red wigs to the rink. His workmanlike efforts and good nature represented, in many ways, what the Flames were all about.

 After clinching at home, the Red Mile revelry escalated as did the shock value of seeing the league's 12th-ranked club facing Tampa's Sunshine Boys for a seven-game showdown for a Stanley Cup few figured would ever threaten to return to Calgary.

 After stealing the opening game in Tampa, the two young squads continued trading wins until Calgary returned to the 'Dome's Sea of Red for Game 6 with an opportunity to finish off their Cinderella story with a Cup-clinching victory to share with the fans who helped make the improbable run so special.

 Instead, the ones who buoyed the franchise through a decade of on-ice failure, off-ice turmoil, forced trades of stars and a botched 'Dome renovation left the rink with their hearts broken as Flames castoff Martin St. Louis forced Game 7 with a double-overtime winner.

 It came a period-and-a-half after Gelinas redirected the puck into the pad of Nikolai Khabibulin for what was later revealed by ABC replays as the Goal No One Saw.

 While debate raged over the league's decision not to review the goal or even whether the video footage was conclusive, coach Darryl Sutter insisted it was a moot point not worthy of further discussion.

 Despite the crushing setback and the mounting injuries that continued to plague the razor-thin club all year long, they still had one more game to play -- one last shot at cementing the Flames place in NHL history as the ones who orchestrated the biggest upset in league lore.

 Alas, in a game in which the Lightning's superior talent followed an early powerplay goal with a stifling, Calgary-like defence, there would be no more comebacks.

 While the heart, tenacity and never-ending spirit of the team provided one final, desperate flurry over the last 10 minutes, time ran out on the Flames.

 The Cup would stay in Tampa.

 As if Stanley needed a tan.

 Still, thousands of miles away, in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, there would be a celebration.

 An estimated 50,000 flooded the Red Mile for one final salute to a club that gave the city so much. Instead of rioting as they had years earlier in lesser cities such as Montreal and Vancouver, they chanted "Go Flames Go" into the night as their hobbled heroes flew home, albeit without the Cup.

 Although their heads hung low as they disembarked the plane at 4 a.m., a group of 400 represented a city of almost a million by giving the lads a pat on the back and a thank-you for a run no one in Calgary will ever forget.

 Today, they will be saluted at Olympic Plaza by thousands more.

 The players deserve as much.

 Hockey history will remember them as also-rans, like so many before them.

 Calgarians will remember them as champions, if only in their hearts.


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