Pride and joy

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 1:31 PM ET


 The emotion in Craig Conroy's voice, the smile on Jarome Iginla's face, the stitches on Rhett Warrener's beak, the hard hat on Miikka Kiprusoff's head and the fans on Andrew Ference's mind all told the story.

 So, too, did the citywide celebrations back in Calgary that extended long past last call and into the morning.

 This was the fans' Stanley Cup.

 At least it felt that way for the tens of thousands who took to the streets, raised a glass in a bar or pumped their fist in their living room when Martin Gelinas erased a 15-year Cup Curse with his dramatic overtime winner at GM Place Monday.

 Perhaps never before and never again has a Canadian city played host to such unabashed revelry following a mere first-round triumph. However, to understand the fuel that has ignited such passion for these Calgary Flames, you need to know about the hurdles these fans have overcome.

 They've stuck with their small-market organization despite seven seasons without playoff hockey, 15 years without playoff success and countless campaigns marred by poor management, suspect coaching and wide-ranging player-personnel changes.

 There were times there was very little hope for the fans -- and hope is the only thing you can sell in a sports world of ever-increasing ticket prices.

 It wasn't until a proud, passionate Albertan from Viking was handed the job of rebuilding the club that this city fell in love with a young crew of players whose biggest asset was heart.

 Coming together in a way precious few outside their dressing room figured they could, they've overcome tremendous odds to not only make the playoffs but star in them.

 Knocking off the division champs in the type of Game 7 showdown the organization had choked on for years, Sutter's banged-up bunch avenged one of the most heartbreaking losses in franchise history two nights earlier.

 Proving turnabout was fair play, they exhibited a maturity, grit and determination to block out the adversity they faced in the form of injuries and inexperience to repay fans for their loyalty.

 But perhaps what pushed them over the edge was a simple gesture from Vancouver pest Matt Cooke after he scored the tying goal with 5.7 seconds left. When skating by the Flames bench to celebrate with his 'mates, he stuck out his tongue.

 He may not have been looking at his opponents when he did it, he may not even have been directing it their way but they saw it.

 And just as they did when pre-season experts declared they'd finish no higher than 10th in the conference, they filed it away as yet another motivator. It fired them up. This team had been kicked around too long for that. They were too proud to come that far and be mocked.

 Dredging up the fighting spirit that has become the endearing trademark of Darryl Sutter's crew, they rallied just as they have all year when faced with adversity.

 Eighty-five seconds later, they'd won.

 And in the end, it's Cooke and his crumbling Canucks whose tongues are now tied as their city abandons them for the summer, full of embarrassment, frustration and shame.

 Despite tight deadlines and the magnitude of the story, several members of the Vancouver media corps put on a telling display by taking the time to line up and shake the hand of a true Canadian hero -- Jarome Iginla.

 One by one they congratulated him, wished him the best and told him he was a class act who deserved it.

 Although the same could be said for his teammates and the city they represent, the press was finally right.

 This wasn't just a first-round victory, this was a celebration of dedication, determination and the power of keeping faith.

 Not just for the players but fans, too.

 Unlike the thousands at GM Place who began filing out of the rink before Cooke tied the game, Calgarians have long stuck with their team.

 After the game, as the Flames filed into the dressing room to celebrate their accomplishment, a small TV monitor on CBC showed the jubilant scene being played out on 17 Ave. SW .The players' screams became louder and they hugged one another tighter.

 There was a much deeper sense of pride knowing that not only did they do themselves proud, they did something much, much bigger for their city.

 They brought back that winning feeling. The pride. The hope. Calgary and its Flames deserve as much.


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