Flames fever pitch

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 5:06 PM ET

 In the midst of his finest hour as a Calgary Flames coach, Darryl Sutter paused briefly after Friday's win to reflect on what he'd just experienced.

 Two Canadian teams and one country united, singing along as Mark Donnelly turned the national anthem over to 18,630 vociferous, towel-toting fans at GM Place.

  The result was music to every Canadian hockey fan's ears -- a stirring chorus bursting with pride and passion for a team and game so dearly loved.

 Even though it wasn't his rink, it was his kind of scene.

 "That crowd was unbelievable -- I'm proud of that," said Sutter, who grew up in a Viking, Alta., farmhouse with six brothers who huddled around the family radio listening to playoff moments like that.

 "Right from the anthems, they should be proud of that. Two Canadian teams and that many people singing our anthem ... and the way they were the whole game ... that's a great crowd. I expect our crowd to be like that. It's hard for you to understand how great it is to come back to Canada and be in this environment."

 Shortly after dinner tonight, a heightened state of euphoria will embrace this city as the scene shifts to this side of the Rockies.

 Gathering from all over the city and southern Alberta for the first Stanley Cup playoff game here since 1996, fans who've followed their team's endless rebuilding efforts will put on their hard hats, face paint and team colours and march towards the Dome in a C of Red.

 Some will come straight from the homes in which they've followed Sutter's boys faithfully throughout the most promising season in over a decade. Others will start at local watering holes where anticipation will build throughout the day.

 A tailgate party outside the 'Dome will feature live entertainment and plenty of flag-waving, while just up Olympic Way, patrons at Coyotes will get a chance to take out seven years of frustration on an old Chevy Cavalier painted in Canucks colours. In the name of charity they'll be able to drive a sledgehammer into the vehicle while others delight in the damage.

 However they prepare, more than 19,000 will assemble in their seats long before the 7:30 p.m. face-off to soak up an atmosphere seen in this city only a precious few times.

 Oh sure, this town has seen its share of celebrations stemming from the Winter Olympics, a Stanley Cup run, numerous Grey Cups and Olympic hockey gold.

 But this is different.

 This is the first significant reward for fan dedication few North American cities can match. Despite approaching an NHL record with seven consecutive seasons without playoffs, Flames fans stuck admirably with their club through front-office pratfalls, on-ice failure, inevitable star departures, an SOS campaign and never-ending promises of better days.

 There were many nights some wondered if streakers would be the only ones to provide the entertainment their hard-earned money demanded.

 All that emotional equity and undying support for the club will pay off in spades tonight when the players who stole home-ice advantage hit the ice for a game they've dreamed of for years.

 "For sure it is," said Captain Class, Jarome Iginla, who will bow his head during the anthem tonight to soak in a moment he so richly deserves.

 "I've never heard anything like the noise (in Vancouver) from the start of the night and during the anthem. I don't think Calgary fans get enough credit for how great a hockey city this is and how supportive they've been. The crowds in Calgary have been getting louder and louder and the energy has been building for a while. It's going to be something special."

 When this town's local heroes hit the ice shortly before game time, the sustained roar and ovation sure to greet them -- however long -- will reverberate through this city for days, weeks, perhaps even months.

 So wherever you're privileged enough to watch Game 3, stand tall with your hand over your heart and when our national anthem begins to play, sing along and savour a moment -- an evening -- this city will never forget.

 After all Flames fans have been through, you deserve it.


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