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A city of flames

Calgary's deep devotion to its hockey team turns it into a sea of red roaring, "Go Flames Go!"

Published May 29, 2004

CALGARY, Alberta - In most cities, this most ordinary of events - a children's choral recital - would have ended with the polite, enthused applause of a room full of proud parents.

But this was Calgary.

This was two games into the National Hockey League's Western Conference final, the beloved Flames' first postseason appearance in eight years.

And any gathering in Calgary, from a board meeting to a coffee shop queue is a potential pep rally.

Within a few rounds of applause at the recital, an urge as honest as cheering one's children took over. A familiar chant began to echo through Jubilee Auditorium:

"Go Flames Go!"

Among the recital crowd was the Flames coach, Darryl Sutter, and his wife, Wanda, who had come to hear their son's performance. As far as Sutter knows, none but a few seated around him knew of his attendance. It didn't matter.

It seems as if every single one of the 920,000 residents of this southern Alberta boom town is swathed in a fiery red Flames jersey, completely caught up in the mania surrounding their hockey team.

On the night that the Flames clinched the Western Conference title by beating the San Jose Sharks at the Pengrowth Saddledome, one fan hung out the window of a Subaru speeding up Centre Street, heaving a flag back and forth, rain soaking into his old Cory Stillman No. 16 jersey. Thousands more, most in their teens or 20s, crept along the street and frolicked out their car windows as 17th Avenue was once more turned into a red Mardi Gras.

"It's pretty special to see what's going on here," Flames forward Jarome Iginla said. "It's cool to be a part of this."

* * *

Every morning that Flames duck in the security door at the back of the Saddledome and make the right turn toward their locker room, they see them. Signatures. Hundreds of thousands of them, from schools, hospitals, bars and clubs. Children, teens and the aged. Red banners, yellow and black. Little messages in a personal scrawl, then three familiar words that end most conversations and e-mails in this town: Go Flames Go.

They all start to blend together after a while, the nurses from Alberta Children's Hospital, Amy from Edmonton.

Edmonton? The archenemy from the north. The evil half in the Battle of Alberta?

"Hey," laughed Chris Dingman, a Lightning forward who lives in Edmonton and played in Calgary. "They're Alberta's team now. My buddies keep sending me e-mails of girls in Flames jerseys flashing them."

One banner in the Saddledome hallway reads: "You have helped make us a closer community."

No pressure there.

"I knew it would be big when we made the playoffs, and things would be crazy, but they've really taken it to the next level," said Flames defenseman Mike Commodore, who has not cut his mop of red hair or shaved since the playoffs began. "People want to go to a bar or a friend's house or whatever. I guess maybe it has brought people together and that's a pretty cool thing. People who otherwise might not ever hang out together are sharing this and that's pretty fantastic, really."

* * *

"I am Calgarian."

It's a knockoff slogan from a Molson Canadian beer ad campaign - "I am Canadian" - but it helps explain the essence of the Flames and their fans.

The comparison to the fervor that surrounded the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl run two years ago works in some ways, but not others.

Though a large portion of the fans who dressed in pewter and red had waited 25 years for such a chance at celebration, many more were converts or transplants, with a Packers or Bears jersey in the closet just in case things went bad one day.

Calgarians have come to this corner of Canada wedged up against the Rocky Mountains in several waves of migration, immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe, job-seekers from Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan hoping to tap into an Alberta economy enjoying another boom.

The city has the largest American population in Canada. They didn't come here to wind down their lives but to get them up to speed. There is a sense of newness and opportunity in these Calgarians.

The Flames are transplants, too. They moved from Atlanta in 1980 and brought a nickname with them that somehow makes sense in Calgary, too. Though it seems these Flames and these fans have been together for 50 years, they have grown up together in this generation.

Many Calgarians wear cowboy hats and immerse themselves in the rich prairie culture, but they walk downtown on "warm" 50-degree days and have a thick beer or thicker steak in a sidewalk cafe along Stephen Avenue.

They boo the Edmonton Oilers and stand in subzero temperatures to root for a Canadian Football League team they nickname the Stamps.

They welcome more than a million people each summer to the Calgary Stampede, a 10-day festival that began in 1912 when a trick-roper named Guy Weadick decided there should be a yearly festival celebrating their cowboy culture. The festival includes a rodeo, a midway, concerts, chuck wagon races and more.

The 1988 Olympics remain a source of pride.

They ski in the Rocky Mountains less than an hour west on Provincial Route 1. They fly-fish in the cold, clear streams that trickle down from those snow-capped peaks.

It's a young city, average age 35, like Tampa. And Calgary was born much like Tampa, as a far-flung outpost waiting for an empire to fill in behind it.

It began in 1875 as Fort Calgary, a Canadian Mounted Police station where the Bow and Elbow rivers met after flowing down from the Rockies. Its purpose was to protect the territory from American whiskey traders. The city grew in bursts with the oil industry.

Calgary is a modern city, with gleaming skyscrapers sending shadows over the few turn-of-the-century stone buildings that sprung up after its first growth spurt. One boom has followed another in Calgary, the most recent in the early 1970s fired by the oil shortage and the prospect of striking it in Alberta.

Now computer technology is one of the growth areas.

* * *

Seven-thousand feet up in the Canadian Rockies, the air is cold and clean and the view stretches into tomorrow.

Just more than an hour west of Calgary, high above the village of Banff, was the first non-red to be seen for days.

At the gondola station, young workers guide tourists into glass cars and bolt them in for the eight-minute glide down the face of the mountain. By the gizmo box that sends the cars down the steep cable stands a kid with a camera, snapping pictures the tourists can purchase as a souvenir in the gift shop below.

As he turns to greet the next set of passengers, he slides a red-and-yellow ski cap onto his head to protect against the chill.

"Where you from?" he asks.

Cue the casual chit-chat.

Then as the gondola doors swing shut, the inevitable ending to the conversation. The period:

"Oh, Go Flames Go."

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