Team under radar in Tampa Bay heat

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 3:49 PM ET


 TAMPA -- Palm trees standing like marble columns surrounding the arena with the thermometer pushing toward 30C doesn't exactly scream out 'hockey hotbed.'

 Hot, maybe, but hockey? No way.

 Yet the Calgary Flames -- Canada's Team -- unpacked their skates and sweated through a high-tempo workout yesterday at the Ice Sports Forum, the hometown Lightning's twin-arena practice facility tucked into an industrial park just off a freeway.

 Although tonight's Stanley Cup final opener is getting lukewarm attention from most major U.S. media, CBC heavyweights Ron MacLean, Don Cherry and even anchor Peter Mansbridge turned out for yesterday's practice.

 While the Lightning skated on one rink, the adjacent ice surface was covered with plywood creating a spacious media area for interviews, each player stationed by his own nameplate and podium.

 "After we beat San Jose, every morning I wake up and can't believe we're four wins away from the Stanley Cup," marvels Flames rookie defenceman Mike Commodore, scrummed by reporters from the U.S., Canada and Europe.

 "Now that we're here, it's a great experience, something I've never seen before."

 Although Commodore has rocketed to stardom in Canada, in particular the Stampede City, here he's just another hockey player with scruffy whiskers. The towering carrot-top rearguard was even approached by one local radio personality, wondering if he was indeed the Flames captain.

 "It's back to normal in a way -- we can't really go anywhere in Calgary (without creating a scene)," notes Commodore of the contrast since touching down Sunday afternoon in the Sunshine State, looking for the team's first Stanley Cup title in 15 years.

 "But we've kind of slipped under the radar down here in Tampa Bay. There isn't a whole lot of attention on us, we're just right down to business. There aren't really that many distractions, nothing really going on for us except playing hockey."

 Calgary's heroes aren't being hassled for autographs as they stroll about town in their shorts, T-shirts and sandals, attention Ville Nieminen claims he misses.

 "We say, 'It's so much hassle!' and this and that but at the same time we're like 'YES!' " Nieminen says of the euphoria from the adoring fans back in his adopted Alberta home.

 "Show me a guy who doesn't like the hockey atmosphere in Calgary, show me a guy."

 Customs officials at Calgary International even displayed a Finnish flag as the Flames moved through the airport Sunday, grabbing signatures from Nieminen and goaltending sensation Miikka Kiprusoff.

 "Little things like that are surprising us every day," says Nieminen, a native of Tampere, Finland.

 When head coach Darryl Sutter takes the main stage to field questions, one of the first offerings leaves the Flames boss bristling.

 "The Calgary Flames are very unknown, obviously, in the Tampa Bay area ..." the questioner begins ...

 "Likewise, I'm sure," Sutter grunts.

 Later, Lightning captain and Hamilton native Dave Andreychuk is asked to put into perspective what hockey means to Canadians, having played on both sides of the border.

 "I played in it. I experienced it. I know what it's like," Andreychuk says. "I know the feelings the fans have, the expectations they have. They are playing the game along with you."


Videos

Photos