Flames get ready for Qualifying Round after season full of adversity

Last season the Calgary Flames worked their way into second place in the NHL with 107 points only to be let down in the playoffs against the Colorado Avalanche in just five games.

Adversity.

Many fans attributed the Flames’ poor playoff performance to not having faced enough adversity in the regular season. Last year, the team went on to have 50 wins — with pretty stellar home and away records, respectively — 26-10-5 and 24-15-2.

But, one could argue that the Flames got their share of misfortune this regular season that made things a bit difficult for them — things that some NHL teams don’t often face, let alone in the same season.

Will the Flames be able to channel what happened this year to motivate them to do well in the NHL’s ‘Return to Play’ this July? We will find out soon enough.

TJ Brodie collapses on ice

CALGARY, AB – OCTOBER 05: T.J. Brodie #7 of the Calgary Flames in action against the Vancouver Canucks during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 5, 2019 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

One of the first things that happened this season, was the unfortunate collapse of long-time Flame TJ Brodie during a practice on Nov. 14. He was rushed to hospital and was released later that same day.

“It can happen to anybody, but especially when it’s a teammate, I think our team was very affected,” said General Manager Brad Treliving. “Ian and I were at the hospital all while T.J. was there, and it was a stream — the whole team was up there at some point. They were very affected.”

This was a horrifying experience for the team and I’m sure the good news that Brodie was doing alright and that he was released from the hospital that same day, was welcomed news to his teammates.

And just after a short two week break, Brodie was able to rejoin the Flames. Prior to that, Brodie said the event gave him some new perspective.

“After everything [that happened] it sort of gives you a different outlook,” said Brodie. “One thing I noticed is you have to try and enjoy the game more. It’s a game — it’s supposed to be fun, and playing professionally it’s easy to treat it more as a job.”

Bill Peters faces racism allegations

But, not long after, the Flames found themselves in the spotlight after something not so “fun” surfaced and parts of the dark side of hockey began to emerge. After the firing of Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock on Nov. 19, allegations began to come out against Babcock and other NHL coaches, including the Flames’ then-head coach Bill Peters.

Former NHL player and Calgary Flame, Akim Aliu came forward on Nov. 25 alleging that Flames coach Bill Peters repeatedly hurled racial slurs towards him in an incident outside the Flames organization in a minor league locker room a decade ago.

“He walked in before a morning pre-game skate and said ‘Hey Akim, I’m sick of you playing that n—– s—,’ ” Aliu told TSN, with Peters, who was then the Ice Hogs head coach, referring to Aliu’s selection of hip-hop music. “He said ‘I’m sick of hearing this n—–s f—— other n—–s in the ass stuff.’

The incident went under investigation and brought international attention to the events and to the Flames organization — something that isn’t easy for a hockey team to ignore, but somehow they found a way to persevere.

“We, as players, all we can do is move forward. We know in society there’s no place for that,” said Flames captain, Mark Giordano.

Eventually the internal and NHL investigation didn’t lead to Peters being fired as Peters resigned from his position as head coach of the Flames before it was concluded.

The Ward era of Flames hockey

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The Flames announced that assistant coach Geoff Ward would be the interim coach for the time being and looked towards focusing on the task at hand — which was winning hockey games.

“Sometimes adversity and stuff that goes on and it’s gotta bring you closer together,” Sean Monahan said. “Right now we’re trying to keep the energy up in the dressing room and obviously on the ice too and like I said move forward. That starts with Ottawa tomorrow.”

And they did go on to win some hockey games in the new Ward era of Flames hockey. Prior to naming Ward as head coach, The Flames struggled with a 11-12-4 record in 27 games. But, after seven games under the new head coach, the Flames had remained undefeated (7-0-0).

“You need to empower the players. I feel that they need to have ownership [of] what goes on on a daily basis with your team,” Ward said. “If you do that, I feel their accountability and their commitment level is higher, and I think it’s easier for them to demand that from each other. And as a result I think there’s a synergy that develops within your group.

“…You get a revitalized energy about your team, and we’re starting to see that with ours right now.”

‘Tiny Dancer’

Ward and the rest of the coaching staff tried to loosen things up for the Flames with music and games at practice.

“It definitely felt a little more relaxed out there. It’s been a hectic few days for a lot people in the organization. For us players, we just try to focus on what we can focus on. It’s just a little bit different, it felt good and you kind of just have your thoughts on practice and nothing else,” said Rasmus Andersson, who picked music for one of the practices and played Elton John’s Tiny Dancer as the Flames warmed up.

And it seemed to be working. After a tough November, the Flames were starting to get back to the team we had witnessed the prior year.

“Hockey’s fun,” said Sean Monahan. “Coming to the rink and having fun, enjoying yourself, that’s what it’s all about.We’re trying to keep the energy up in the dressing room and on the ice. Having music on during practice? That’s a first for me. And I loved it.”

After the win streak, under interim head coach Ward, the Flames began to have an on-and-off relationship with winning. At some points, the Flames looked like the second-place team they were in 2018-19, but at other times it felt like they had completely lost their touch.

Reigniting the season

Despite not having the greatest regular season record in 2019-20 (36-27-7), it is probably difficult to remember some of the great moments that came out of it — like when Tkachuk scored the goal of the decade in overtime against the Nashville Predators in October. Tkachuk scored the tying goal with 40 seconds left in regulation and then also scored winning goal with 1.4 seconds left in overtime with an incredible between-the-legs shot.

“I didn’t think it was going to be possible after the first 20 minutes or first 10 minutes,” Tkachuk said. “We were all over them in that third period and that’s the way we need to be to be at our best.”

And lets not forget how the Tkachuk and Kassian feud single-handedly brought back the Battle of Alberta on Jan. 11. The two reignited one the NHL’s nastiest feuds after Tkachuk got Kassian with two body checks, which the Oilers forward felt were “predatory.” Tkachuk’s second hit on Kassian sent his helmet flying and Kassian responded by grabbing and attacking Tkachuk. Kassian was assessed a double minor penalty for roughing and a misconduct, and Calgary scored the game-winning goal on the ensuing power play, writes ESPN.

“I’m not fighting him. Tough little trade-off there,” Tkachuk said. “If he wants to react like that, we’ll take the power play and we’ll take the game winner and we’ll take first place.”

In the following Flames and Oilers games, we saw a Tkachuk-Kassian fight, a Tkachuk-Bear fight, a surprise fight between Monahan and Nugent-Hopkins and the Battle of Alberta’s first goalie fight between ex-Flame Mike Smith and ex-Oiler Cam Talbot. The Flames won the regular season series against the Oilers 3-1.

Flames represented at all-star game

Flames goalie, David Rittich was named to the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Game at Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Jan. 25. Rittich replaced injured Arizona Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper on the Pacific Division team.

“This means a lot for me,” Rittich said. “Right now, I can kind of say I’m with the best players in the world in the All-Star Game. It’s going to be huge for me and it for sure can help me, for my next steps in my career. I’m just going to enjoy the time and I want to try my best there. I just want to have fun.”

It was Rittich’s first NHL All-Star Game and he was joined by Flames teammates Tkachuk, who was also there for his first time, and returning All-Star and Norris Trophy winner, Giordano.

COVID-19 pandemic puts pause to season

On Mar. 12, the Flames were set to take on the New York Islanders, but the game was postponed as the NHL decided prior to the game that the NHL regular season was going to be put on hold until further notice in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was just another roadblock for the Flames in such a long and drawn out regular season full of ups-and-downs.

But, the NHL is officially back after The NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) and the NHL voted on Friday to ratify an agreement that includes a six-year Collective Bargaining Agreement and a ‘Return to Play’ plan bringing hockey back after a historic, 142-day pause.

Prior to training camp, it was announced that Flames defenceman Travis Hamonic became the first NHL player to opt out from playing in the league’s ‘Return to Play.”

“Due to what my daughter already has gone through and the concerns if she were to catch COVID-19, I’ve decided to opt out and seek a leave of absence from the Calgary Flames for the remainder of the playoffs,” Hamonic said. While a decision to be respected, it left a hole in the Flames’ defense group allowing for players like Andersson to likely step up and get more minutes in the upcoming Qualifying Round.

“While we will miss Travis in our line-up, we understand and respect his decision. Our focus remains on preparation for training camp and our upcoming series in the NHL Qualifying Round,” said Treliving.

Training camp began on July 13 and also caused some confusion and controversy. Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau was separated from usual linemates Monahan and Elias Lindholm during camp, along with other lineup staples such as Andrew Mangiapane, who found a home later in the season on the second line with Mikael Backlund and Tkachuk.

But Treliving and Ward were quick to dismiss any rumours of why the linemates were split up.

“As camp wears on at some point we’re going to get them back together and it’ll take off from there,” Ward said. “When we get them back together, they’ve had enough chemistry over time together through several years. I’m sure it’s going to be like riding a bike when they do finally get reunited.”

Flames forwards Dillon Dube and Buddy Robinson were late to hit the ice at training camp as they didn’t join the team until the middle of camp. Then, forward Derek Ryan, left partway through Monday’s first skate was ‘unfit to play’ for a few days, followed by Backlund who also left partway through a practice. Eventually, both returned and participated in training camp and Flames intrasquad games once again.

The Flames are now travelling up north to the Western Conference hub city in Edmonton on July 26 followed by an exhibition game against the Oilers on July 28.

Then, on Aug. 1 the Flames will play in their first game of the Qualifying Round against the Winnipeg Jets.

Calgary (36-27-7, .564 points percentage) enters the Stanley Cup Qualifiers as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. They will play the No. 9 seed, the Winnipeg Jets (37-28-6, .563), in one of four best-of-5 series at Rogers Place in Edmonton.

The winner will advance to the playoffs. The loser will have a chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery, scheduled for Aug. 10, according to the Calgary Flames.

But, according to Tkachuk, the Flames aren’t planning on taking the Qualifying Round lightly and is looking to use the rough year and season as motivation in the postseason.

“I’m sick of losing in these first rounds,” Tkachuk said. “I know a lot of guys are also sick of losing, who want redemption after last year. It’s time for us to prove we’re an elite hockey team.”Not too many people are saying stuff about us, but we know if we play the right way you get this momentum going. It’s all momentum in the playoffs. We have to just keep the momentum going as long as we can.”

What were some of your other favourite moments from this season? Rittich’s stick flip? Backlund scoring steak? Lucic’s goal celebration? Tell us on our social media channels (@redmilepodcast)!