Spinning hockey gold

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:44 PM ET


 There were 14 offers on the table for Joe Nieuwendyk when Al Coates began to play the elimination game.

 He was barely into his first month on the job, not exactly secure as the interim general manager of the Calgary Flames, and he knew he had do something about Nieuwendyk, who refused to play for the team anymore.

 "We got it down to three teams, then it was down to two, and we liked both deals," Coates said, remembering nine years ago. "We had to work fast because the Christmas freeze on trades was at midnight. We decided: 'Let's make this one.' "

 The night the Flames acquired Jarome Iginla from the Dallas Stars.

 "Joe Nieuwendyk had run the gamut with our organization," said Coates, who has been an NHL general manager only once and now works for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. "There were some real good things that happened and there were some problems. Part of it was financial and part of it was personal. His relationship with the organization had broken down. He wasn't going to play for us anymore.

 "So we had to come up with a strategy of what we were looking for in return."

 Coates wasn't looking for a certain star. He was looking for someone young he could bring in, depend upon, and watch play for the Flames for the next 10 years. And when Nieuwendyk came to Toronto this season, he said he wanted to contribute to a Stanley Cup winner.

 Who knew the Nieuwendyk contribution most widely felt would be the one from nine years ago in Calgary?

 "We knew (Iginla) would play in the league and we knew he would be a good player," Coates said. "But to say he would have won the Art Ross Trophy or the Rocket Richard Trophy, or be a finalist for the Hart or do what he's doing now, I'm not going to say we knew that. That wouldn't be the truth."

 Al Coates was fired in Calgary after the 2000 season, four years after trading for Iginla, who has become the most important player, non-goaltender category, in hockey.

 Coates was let go two months after making another deal that has put the how-is-this-happening Flames in a position to win the Stanley Cup.

 The junior prospects all-star game was in Calgary that season and Pierre Lacroix phoned Coates and asked to meet him at that game. Before the game had ended, a deal had been worked out that would send Theo Fleury and another player to the Colorado Avalanche for four prospects, one of them being Wade Belak.

 The key player in the deal was another Kamloops alumnus, though, a young defenceman named Robyn Regehr.

 "We knew we couldn't afford to sign Theo, who was becoming a free agent at the end of the season and Colorado was one of the few teams interested in him without being able to sign him first," Coates said.

 "We liked the fact that (Regehr) was a Western Canadian kid, a big horse of a defenceman, who stayed at home and had great character."

 Now the Flames become the first Canadian team in almost a decade to go to the Stanley Cup final, with the key individuals not named Kiprosoff being Iginla and Regehr. The small-market Flames found a way to turn assets into assets and spin their own kind of hockey gold into this unlikely story.

 Not so funny how things work out: The deals that look so shrewd over time essentially lost Al Coates his job. But the impact and the feeling remains, two teams and four seasons later.

 "I met my wife there, my kids were all born there, you don't invest 20 years of your adult life in something and not have a lot of feelings when you see what's going on in Calgary," he said. "I cheer for all the players we've had a hand in bringing in. There's a certain gratification in that."

 Two weeks before the trade for Regehr, Coates got a call from his assistant, Nick Polano, who had been scouting the IHL all-star game. There was this kid, Polano said, who had all kinds of talent and moxie and was worth gambling on, even though he had no size.

 After the all-star game, the Flames signed the kid. Turns out, he may also be going to the Stanley Cup final. His name: Martin St. Louis.


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