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EYES ON THE PRIZE

Flames amped to get back on the ice to pursue Lord Stanley's mug

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

Reinforcements have arrived. The necessary familiarity level achieved. A renewed purpose and ambition instilled.

A year ago, trooping out onto the fairways for the annual pre-training camp charity golf outing, a sense of the unknown permeated the Calgary Flames.

New head coach. Different direction.

No Johnny Gaudreau (contract). No Sean Monahan (injured). Kris Versteeg had yet to appear on their radar screen.

Back then, Mike Smith was in Phoenix, Az., Eddie Lack in Raleigh, N.C. and Travis Hamonic in Brooklyn, N.Y.

And while a measure of re-tooling has taken place this summer - stand still and be left behind in today's NHL - an air of solidity, of cohesiveness, is tangible as Go Time fast approaches.

Uncertainty has given way to possibilities.

With fitness testing skedded for Thursday at Winsport, this 2017 edition of the Flames believes it can hit the ground running.

"We made some great moves,'' said Monahan, forced to bow out of the World Cup and skip camp last year due to a strained back but in pristine condition now.

"For me, obviously, I missed all of camp. It was a different situation with the World Cup and stuff. This year there's a different feeling.

"Everyone looks like they've had a great summer. You want to build that chemistry early and have a good start to the season. Training camp's a big part of that.

"I feel great right now. Just looking forward to playing some hockey. You can only train for so long and get ready.

"Mentally, once you get back on the ice with the guys you've got to put that all to work."

Being able to launch into a chorus of "Hail, hail, the gang's all here" makes such a difference in plotting course and moving forward. And Sam Bennett's signature on the dotted line Sept. 6 made sure of that.

"That,'' Bennett emphasized Tuesday, "was the whole priority. I knew there was a bunch of rumours but I was always focused on being here for camp. 

"It's definitely huge to have a good start and being here on time is the right way to do that."

The feisty centreman arrived out at Country Hills Golf Club for tee off not only in possession of a newly-signed two-year, $3.9-million deal but an eye-catching thatch of beard.

"No reason. I just started growing it. I don't know if it's going to stay or not."

When informed that his current facial hair production far exceeded that of all-time leading scorer Wayne Gretzky on multiple attempts during his unmatched playing career, Bennett could only smile slightly.

"Yeah, well … that might be the only thing I can do better than him."

Doing things better is the mandate, the mantra, of an organization looking to make further headway in a strong Pacific Division.

"I know for myself being comfortable is a huge thing. And for a lot of other guys it is, too," agreed Versteeg, who didn't sign on here until Oct. 11 after a PTO up north in Edmonton.

"Being able to come in this year, see everyone, get around them for a few days, start training camp together and also get off on the same foot with the coaching staff where we can all be on the same page, is huge.

"You bring in new guys … not only new guys but big names that can really help. That definitely energizes guys.

"Even when I wasn't signed and I saw them get signed it gets you excited to come back and be a part of it.

"They're special players and hopefully they can push us forward."

Smith, Lack and Hamonic, the Flames believe, help do precisely that.

However things shake down, expectations - both outwardly and, more importantly, inwardly - are high.

"Expectations?'' laughed defenceman Michael Stone, who came over from Phoenix last season. "Oh, man. They're awesome.

"I'm not used to them. But nice. Really.

"Having expectations makes you want to go above and beyond. You can't look at them negatively.

"You look at the moves we made in the off-season and you want to build on what we achieved last year.

"I think I speak for everybody when I say we've got a really good opportunity to accomplish not only that but do some really, really good things."

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