No substitute

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 4:07 PM ET


 If you've questioned the strength of a championship bond, consider Chris Simon's tale.

 Acquired from the going-nowhere New York Rangers just before the trade deadline, Simon came to the Calgary Flames ecstatic at the thought of simply having a chance to make it to the post-season.

 Then, he ran into Stephane Yelle.

 It began the flood of memories from the Stanley Cup victory they shared with the Colorado Avalanche in 1996.

 "All those guys that you've won with, you have a special connection," Simon said. "You were the best that year and there's definitely a connection.

 "You have to go through it all to understand it. Once you go through it once, though, it's a contagious thing and you want it again."

 Like Yelle, the only multiple Cup winner on the Flames, did in 2001. Simon had long departed the Avs but current Flames Ville Nieminen and Steve Reinprecht had a hand in that Mile High City championship.

 Yelle, not one to reminisce with such an important task at hand, will allow himself to get a little excited about being so close to a third crown, with the final opening tonight in Tampa.

 "It's the best feeling for a hockey player," said the centre. "We know how hard it is to make it to the playoffs and how hard it is to get there. The hard work makes it so much more gratifying."

 Gratifying and lifelong. No matter what happens to a hockey player, winning a Cup, a single NHL championship, can't take away their tag as a winner.

 "Every time you win something, you remember those guys forever," said Nieminen. "You went through something special with them. It is different."

 The Flames have seven vets who've won eight Cups. Their opposition in an unlikely final has four players -- Darryl Sydor, Chris Dingman, Brad Lukowich and Tim Taylor -- with Cup rings.

 Though his team has been built with players who have a solid share of playoff success, Flames GM-head coach Darryl Sutter doesn't believe it's a factor.

 Nor was it a plan for building the team.

 "Every round is a different season. You're not going to use that too much," Sutter said with shrug. "If you're on a year-to-year program, yeah, it matters. If you're trying to do something long-term, I don't know how important that is. If you want to build a team with players who've all won before, you'll have a team of players all 29 or over and it doesn't work. It's been tried.

 "I don't know the importance. Dave Andreychuk hasn't won but he's their most important player."

 But not one that can impart knowledge from having experienced the joy of hoisting hockey's Holy Grail.

 A more important message may be to make the most of the chance and give everything you've got.

 "It's gonna be even harder. It just gets even harder," said Simon, who lost the Cup final with Washington in '98. "Nobody remembers second place. You always remember who won and it's the best thing, being a champion."


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