Burning love

TODD SAELHOF -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 2:36 PM ET


 They've been met with roaring approval -- inside the Saddledome, of course, and far beyond the arena's walls.

 On the street, in restaurants, in shopping malls and around the water cooler, the Calgary Flames are once again a hot topic of conversation and a warm fuzzy for the citizens of the city.

 Especially on the eve of their first playoff appearance in eight NHL seasons.

 "I hear things -- not directed at me -- but I hear people talking about how we won this night or another night and that's huge," said veteran Flames winger Chris Clark.

 "People talking about (playoff hockey) gets more people talking about it. And people who aren't hockey fans come out and see what's going on and say, 'Hey, this looks like fun.' "

 Assistant captain Craig Conroy agrees.

 "It is a fun feeling," he said.

 "The city's just buzzing. Everywhere you go, people are talking about us. You go to the grocery store and it's everywhere. Everybody's got it on their mind right now."

 For good reason.

 After all, the accomplishments of this season's edition of the Flames not only puts an end to a seven-season playoff drought but also puts a giddy-up in the hitch of the hockey faithful here. Finally this spring, there is something for fans to cheer about.

 "And they deserve it," Conroy said. "There was a lot of rumours that maybe the team was not going to be here a few years ago when I got here. It was in turmoil."

 It was season after season of losing -- plain and simple.

 "It's true," Clark said.

 "Nobody really wants to rally around a losing team.

 "When you're winning, everybody benefits. They just feel better about themselves. The city does better. People are going out. They're staying at work later. They're going to eat before the games. They're staying out after the games. It's just a huge benefit -- a huge boost to the city.

 "And with that happening and them coming to the rink enthusiastic about us winning, that builds with us on the ice. Because then it's not a flat crowd. Right from the drop of the puck in the first period, they're behind us."

 Crowd noise became louder as the season wore on, spurring the Flames to new heights.

 And in last Wednesday's home finale, with the club poised to clinch a playoff spot, the volume reached a few ear-splitting crescendos with a session of foot-stomping early in the third period, then thunderous applause as the game's final few seconds ticked down.

 The Flames appreciate the noise -- and the colour co-ordination.

 "I want to see that 'C' of Red," said Conroy of fans adorned in the new red home jerseys.

 "I told my wife, 'We'll get some red on you -- a coat or something. But we're coming with red on that first game.' "

 And all the ensuing home games, too.

 No one -- neither the fans nor the players -- take the playoffs for granted, as they did in the 1980s and early '90s.

 "Here people have been waiting for eight years to get into the playoffs again, so it's great for the fans," said Flames enforcer Krzysztof Oliwa. "For every fan who comes to the game, they believed in us, so I'm very happy to be part of this experience."

 It's an experience the Flames intend to savour.

 "I was in a hockey city before and I'm in a hockey city now, so I guess I haven't experienced otherwise," said Flames sophomore Jordan Leopold, a Minnesota native.

 "But I always enjoy listening to fans and hearing what they have to say and going to dinner and being recognized. That's hockey town. Sometimes it can be a little bit of a burden but that's part of the job and part of the territory."


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