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37 FOR 37: 2004 RUN

Magical spring caught the hockey world by storm as underdog Flames piled up the upsets

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

Asked to at least try and explain the feeling of disappointment and desolation, Rhett Warrener used a movie reference.

"Did you,'' asked the warrior-like defenceman, "see Master and Commander?''

In the 2003 adventure yarn, Russell Crowe's Capt. Jack Aubrey is consumed with his pursuit of a bigger, faster, more seaworthy French warship.

The chase becomes a battle of wits between the two captains. At the end, despite defeating the French vessel, Aubrey finds himself still in pursuit of his rival, who has disguised himself and sailed off on Aubrey's own ship.

You exit the theatre wondering when, or even if, the British commander's prey will be caught.

Warrener could relate. At 28, he was running short on chances.

A 2-1 Game 7 loss at the Tampa St. Pete's Times Forum, meant he'd reached three Stanley Cup finals over the course of a career and had yet to sip champagne from the big silver chalice that consumes their dreams.

"One time is hard enough,'' he explained in a murmur.

"But three times . . ."

A soft, disbelieving shake of the head.

"And this time to come that close …

"You can't know how hard that is."

Through two improbable, magical months, the 2004 Flames wrote a story that continues to resonate in this town.

So many heroes to go around. The crusty boss, Darryl Sutter, prodding them relentlessly forward. Winger Martin Gelinas richly earning the nickname 'The Eliminator' for his OT heroics. Captain Jarome Iginla backing up the claim of best player in the game. Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff playing out of his Finnish skin. Rock 'em-Sock 'em defenceman Robyn Regehr opening his famous Tunnel of Death for business. A cast of wonderful character actors - Ville Nieminen, Mike Commodore, Steve Montador - taking on lead roles and running with them.

They'd eliminated three favoured opponents, Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose, galvanizing their fan base and virtually everyone in the 403 area code along the way.

But it had cruelly come to ashes in the June Florida sunshine.

Over a decade removed from that Game 7, the thoughts of assistant coach Jim Playfair - now an associate coach in Arizona - drifted back to Warrener when asked for a Game 7 memory.

"It hurt. Everybody. Obviously. We were all devastated. But mostly remember a guy like Retro (Warrener), who'd battled so long, so hard and come so close before.

"It didn't seem fair."

The losing room afterwards was a silent as a tomb.

"This,'' confessed Iginla softly, "is going to sit with me for a long time. This is an indescribable sting.

"This is the worst feeling you can have, the worst I've ever felt, anything I've been a part of. The toughest loss by a thousand times. We worked . . . "
And his voice trailed off a moment.

". . . So hard. We got so close."

After losing Game 6, a potential clinch, in heartbreaking, overtime fashion to a Martin St. Louis snipe after what looked like a perfectly good goal from Gelinas had been chalked off, the Flames had to regroup.

Through Game 7, they courageously tried to dredge up more fight, but fell behind 2-0.

In fact, until centre Craig Conroy's long-range shot sailed past Nikolai Khabibulin's glove midway through the third period, this wasn't merely a case of coming up empty. It was a case of being empty. Hollow. Bereft. Shot full of holes.

Conroy's goal midway through the third period jolted them back to life and Khabibulin was forced to make one final, decisive save, off defenceman Jordan Leopold's stick in the game's dying embers.

Only later, in hindsight, after the pain had subsided, could they realize how much they had given, how much it was appreciated.

"Who,'' asked Conroy, in the immediacy of the moment, "ever remembers who finished second?"

Thirteen years later, in Calgary, at any rate, nobody's forgotten.


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