Calgary Flames Fever
In 2004 I spent 4 months travelling through Central America with some friends, and when I returned to Canada it was to my uncle’s place in Calgary. As we drove from the airport to my uncle’s place, it became noticeable that every second car had a red flag flying, a red front number plate or a red poster in its window. Many of the houses had posters as well, and many of the people in the streets were dressed in red. The next day, when I was downtown, it was even more noticeable. Why was Calgary dressed in red? Guys in business suits with red ties, women powerdressed with red scarves and shoes, babies in red onesies clutching red rattles nestled in red blankets. What on earth could be going on?
Part of the answer lay in the logo that adorned every red flag, numberplate, poster, tie, scarf, onesie, rattle and blanket. The rest of the answer lay in the success of a certain sporting team who were doing well in a certain sporting event. Have I built it up enough? Perhaps not. If you think Australians are nuts about sport, you haven’t seen Canada in hockey season. If you’ve been to Canada in hockey season and you’re aware that Canadians are nuts about hockey, hold back your judgement because you haven’t seen the half of it. No, to really appreciate how nuts Canadians really can be about hockey, you need to go to Calgary in hockey season. For the premier experience and to firmly establish that Canadians are indeed nuts about hockey, go to Calgary on a night when their local team, the Calgary Flames, are playing. For the ultimate in the ‘Canadians are nuts about hockey’ experience, unwittingly arrive in Calgary when the Flames have just fought their way against the odds into the playoffs for the Stanley Cup, the holy grail of hockey, perhaps just a tiny bit less holy than the Hockey Gold Medal at the Winter Olympics. Then live in a town populated by Calgarians throughout the course of the playoffs, and you will then understand really how nuts the Canadians are about hockey, and in particular how nuts Calgary is about their hockey team, the Calgary Flames.
Strangers in red pass each other in the streets, give each other high fives and cry ‘Go The Flames!!’ If you live within a few kilometres of a pub, you can easily hear whenever Calgary score a goal. If you don’t wear red then it’s probably not safe for you to walk down the street on game night. In downtown Calgary, 17th Street is also called ‘The Red Mile’, and if you’re feeling like an intense experience (and you wear red) you can go and watch the hockey there in one of the pubs with all the other fans. In 2004 Calgary made it all the way through the play offs into the final game that would decide the Stanley Cup - winner takes it. I lived about 3 hours west of Calgary but the Flames Fever spread to the town, despite the fact it was in British Columbia (home of the Vancouver Canucks). It seemed like the whole of Canada was barracking for the Flames, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d declared a National Day of Mourning when the Flames just lost the final game and the Stanley Cup for Calgary.
So, after I’ve set the scene, let’s fast forward to the present, 2009. Dave and I watched a series of games in pubs, and the Flames were looking pretty good for the playoffs - maybe even for topping the Western Conference, the pool in which they play. Thinking it would be very cool to watch an NHL game live, Dave and I looked up which games would be playing while we were in Calgary and found out some interesting news. On the 11th of April, while we would be in Calgary, the Flames would be playing the Edmonton Oilers. Having experienced ‘Flame Fever’ before, I knew this would be a good one.
If you don’t live in Alberta, perhaps you won’t know about the rivalry between Edmonton and Calgary. The best thing about Edmonton (the Calgarians say), is the road south to Calgary - which is even (they crow) called the Calgary Trail! If Edmonton is playing another team in the hockey, even if it’s an American team, people in Calgary will barrack for the Americans - and Canadians never, ever, ever barrack for the Americans. If you’re a Flames fan, you should never, ever associate with an Oilers fan, no matter how hot she should be. What on earth would happen to the poor children?
So, the news that Calgary was playing Edmonton in Calgary was pretty good news, since we wanted a genuine Canadian sporting experience. We tried to get tickets but they were all sold out, so we made Plan B which was to go to the stadium and try to get scalped tickets, and Plan C which was to go to the Red Mile and watch it there. When we arrived in Calgary and told my uncle Dave this, he got on the phone to his contacts and 10 minutes later we had two tickets to the game, courtesy of Pat Carey who has season’s tickets but wasn’t attending the game! Not only were these tickets to the game, they were in the 10th row of the stadium, just above the players’ bench. You can’t be much closer than this, any lower and it’s a bit hard to see over the barricade. There was only one condition for us using these tickets - set for us by Pat, his father Frank, his mother Anita, my uncle Dave, his friend Neil who delivered the tickets and anyone else we told about the game. You need to imagine a deep, ominous voice accompanied by a serious look and a firm hand on the shoulder - You Must Not Wear Blue. You Must Not Wear Blue. You Must Not Wear Blue. You Must Wear Red. You Must Wear Red. You Must Wear Red. See if you can guess which team wears blue.
Luckily Dave and I had a few red things in our packs, so on game day we adorned them and set off to Frank’s place for a burger and a few pre-game beers. Despite the fact we were dressed pretty exclusively in red, we were still out of place. Everyone at Frank’s place was dressed in a Calgary Flames jersey, most with the name of their favourite player across the back. Our red got the nod of approval and we were allowed to set off to the game. On the way we were coached by Mike, brother of Pat and son of Frank - we were to cheer loudly for the Flames, we were to remain wearing our red and we were to call the Edmonton coach a murderer. A little nervous about all these rules but confident we could follow them, we arrived at the stadium.
Red, red, red. And not just red - everyone had on a Flames jersey. One or two brave souls were dressed in their Oilers jerseys but they were being shunned and there were a number of ‘good luck next week’ comments flying through the air (the Oilers wouldn’t make the playoffs, even if they won tonight, so their season was over). We joined the wave of red up into the stadium and were given red, hand-shaped clappers that flashed on the way in the door. When we found our seats, settled in with our beer and popcorn and unwrapped our Flames clappers, I found the time to look around the stadium. I have never seen anything like it - a sea of red! There was an Oilers fan sitting in front of us and as I pointed him out to Dave, his girlfriend caught my eye and shook her head ruefully and apologetically. We were the only people in our section without jerseys but I’m sure our enthusiasm meant that was ok - Dave in particular was bouncing off the walls!
All of a sudden the lights went out, and 30,000 Flames fans started using their red clappers. The red lights flashed all over the stadium, a booming voice announced the game, and the crowd went wild!! The lights flashed on the ice, flames roared out of canisters in the roof and from the scoreboard, and the players skated on to the ice - first Edmonton (booooooo booooooooo), then the Flames. Everyone was on their feet, everyone was yelling and cheering, and we were right there with them - the atmosphere was infectious! Every time the Flames scored a goal, an enormous flame would spout out of the canisters on the roof, the heat reaching us in our seats. The crowd oohed and aahed as one whenever Calgary had a shot, and booed loudly whenever Edmonton came close to scoring. With the crowd behind them, Calgary had a resounding victory, beating the Oilers 5 goals to 1.
The game was the most incredible sporting event I’ve ever been to. It’s incredible to think that even a game that didn’t affect the Flames’ entry into the playoffs would still generate so much enthusiasm. Dave got so excited that when he disappeared between the first and second period to get more beer, he came back sporting a brand new Flames jersey. His jersey was on the ‘specials’ rack and says Lombardi (who is apparently now traded to another team) but his purchase was still very much approved by the people sitting around us, my uncle Dave and the Carey family. We left the game absolute Flames fans, and I’m sure Dave in particular will be following their progress through the playoffs this year, and probably their progress in years to come. So - if you’re walking through the streets of Tasmania in the wee hours of the morning and you see a light flickering red through a flag-adorned window, and you hear yelling and cheering and booing and cries of ‘murderer’ filtering through into the wintery streets, it’s probably a safe bet that this is our place, the guy in the window is wearing a Lombardi jersey and Calgary are playing hockey.
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