It’s all about striving to reach the top, right? In whatever you do. Whether it’s climbing the Grouse Grind or winning the Stanley Cup. That’s the aim. The top. - Craig Conroy
CALGARY, AB -- Part-way up, Craig Conroy admits to searching the terrain frantically for a discarded bottle of water. Or a spare oxygen tank.
Maybe even an off-duty Sherpa guide.
“Gully was telling me ‘Hey, it’s not bad, the Sedins do the climb in 33 minutes or something,’” marvels Conroy at the recollection. “So I text Marty (Gelinas) and he says: ‘Yeah, I’ve done it.’ Thirty-whatever minutes for him. So in my mind, I’m thinking: Okay, little mountain climb, this is going to be … easy.
“Shows you how wrong a guy can be.
“We start and I’m like: ‘Holy … crap!
“I thought this was going to be hilly, right? Nope. Straight up. Rocks everywhere. I mean, tough.
“We’re climbing and I’m thinking we’ve must be at least halfway up. And then we reach … the quarter pole.”
The Grouse Grind is a 2.9-kilometre trail up the face of Grouse Mountain, commonly referred to, rather ominously, as Mother Nature’s Stairmaster.
Now it’d be silly to imply that a shared assault on its summit was enough to seal any deal, but the time spent sharing ideas (and suffering) on the trek between Calgary’s assistant GM and one of the leading candidates for the vacant head-coaching position with the Flames certainly didn’t hurt.
“I climbed a mountain,’’ is how Glen Gulutzan remembered it, during his introductory conference in the Ed Whalen Media Lounge mid-morning Friday.
“I don’t know if anyone knew. I climbed a mountain with Craig Conroy as part of the interview. We did the Grouse Grind in Vancouver. He wanted to test me physically, so we did that.’’
The testing, according to Conroy, was all about him.
“We were supposed to meet at the hotel at the airport, at the one end. We had like five or six hours to talk before my flight out. So Gully says: ‘What do you want to?’ And I’m like: ‘I don’t know.’”
Matinee movie at the multiplex, maybe? A keep-‘em-coming string of lattes in one of those posh Robson St. cafes? An information-session stroll through Stanley Park?
“He didn’t want to go out in Vancouver in case somebody recognized us, talking,’’ continues Conroy. “So he said: ‘You know what I’ve always wanted to do? The Grouse Grind. You climb this mountain.’
“We’d have time to talk on the way out, do the climb, have lunch, talk some more. So I’m like: okay.
“Oh, man. What a nightmare. I don’t know, maybe he set me up. We were so excited, we took off like a rocket. By the middle, let me tell you, the Grind was just that - a grind.”
The conversation helped ease any anxiety either felt about the process.
“About halfway up we really started talking,’’ recalls Conroy. “He had a million ideas. It was great listening to him, so full of enthusiasm. Then in that final push, we both suddenly had this renewed energy. We were passing people left and right.
“It was awesome.
“It was a great interview. Much different than sitting in a board room. Certainly not the standard fare, right? And, y’know, I think it helped me get to know him better.
“By the end, we were moving pretty good. We made it up in, like, 43 minutes. But I was sweating bullets by the time we got there.”
Gulutzan admitted on the ascent that his three years in Dallas had been no different than, say, the first draft of a novel; that now, after a chance to reflect on the pages and do some judicious editing, he was much closer to the finished product than ever before.
“He talked about how when you get to the NHL and you’re playing every other day, always travelling, you really start to appreciate how hard it is. Especially out here in the West,’’ recalled Conroy.
“He went through a list of things he would change this time around in terms of preparation and that sort of thing, if he got the job. I found it very interesting.
“And he talked about that climb were were making being like a season. The quarter pole was the 20-game mark. Halfway, 40 games. The goal was to get to the top.
“Like I said, he might’ve set me up for that. But, hey, that’s fine.”
A coach of a different vintage in this town, the late, great, sorely-missed Badger Bob Johnson, always spoke of success in terms of mountain-climbing, too.
To listen to the Badger go on, you’d think he was somehow distantly related to Sir Edmund Hillary.
The years have flown by, the times have changed, but the analogy still applies.
As of Friday, Gulutzan has joined the Flames’ expedition. And they’ve got quite a climb ahead of them: Up Hockey’s Stairmaster.
By comparison, the straight-up, rock-infested Grouse Grind is 2.9-kilometres of child’s play.
“Hey,’’ says Conroy, “it’s all about striving to reach the top, right? In whatever you do. Whether it’s climbing the Grouse Grind or winning the Stanley Cup.
“That’s the aim. The top.”
Where you get to stop and breathe.
Where you get to admire the view.
Where you get to plant your flag.