Flames fans Jason Belliveau, left, and Andrea Pounden prepare for the start of the Calgary Flames season prior to the game against the San Jose Sharks at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Sunday.
Photograph by: Stuart Gradon, Calgary Herald
CALGARY — Flames fans forgive, forget and forge on — though the freebies didn’t hurt.
Plastic beer cups overflowed. A sea of red jerseys surged through the Saddledome. Hard earned cash was exchanged for half-priced merchandise. Faces cracked with ear-to-ear grins.
If one didn’t know better, it was just another season opening game for the Calgary Flames at the sold out Saddledome on a Sunday afternoon.
But it wasn’t just any season opener. This was the first game of a season slashed almost in half due to a bitter 113-day labour dispute between billionaire NHL team owners and millionaire hockey players.
Stuck in the middle were, of course, the forlorn fans who grew increasingly frustrated as the lockout — the third in the past two decades — dragged on.
But threats by fans of boycotting the league, avoiding watching games, wearing funeral black and turning their backs on players during the home opener proved empty.
“I’m just excited for them to be back,” said fan Eryn Hiller.
Her husband, Paul, held the couple’s one-year-old son, who was decked out head to toe in Flames gear.
“I was mad, but now that it’s back I think I’ll be all right,” Paul said. “And the free parking was pretty cool.”
By the time the Flames hit the ice, it was as if the lockout, the months of chest-puffing negotiations, the lost revenue for local businesses and the long faces of dejected hockey fans never, ever happened.
“It’s all good,” said 20-year-old fan Eric Becker, beer in each hand. “We’re just the fans who want to have fun and get drunk.”
In the end everyone knew their role: Flames’ owners regaled fans with free parking, half-priced merchandise, food and drinks, as well as dozens of signed jerseys. The Flames players skated out to centre ice, formed a circle, waved a team flag and saluted the crowd with raised hockey sticks.
“We’re grateful for your support this season and every season,” boomed the announcer over the Saddledome’s PA system.
And the fans waved blinking red sticks and roared on cue.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere was decidedly more sombre along 17th Avenue S.W., once home to the Red Mile made famous by the Flames’ nearly triumphant playoff run in 2004.
At Melrose Cafe & Bar, widely considered the Red Mile’s ground zero, U.S. football games — not hockey — dominated the television screens on the main floor.
Hockey was, for the time being, relegated to the basement, where the Flames game against the San Jose Sharks aired on more than 50 television screens.
A thin crowd of roughly 30 fans sat amongst mostly empty tables and bar stools. Bartenders and servers milled about, chatting with each other and looking bored.
Melrose owner Wayne Leong said the number of patrons was fairly good for an afternoon game on a Sunday. Business, he said, was much more brisk the night before when all the other Canadian teams were playing season openers.
Still, the lockout took its toll on businesses like his, Leong said.
“It had an impact,” he said. “But hockey is Calgary, and Calgary is hockey.”
And when it came to the actual game, the hometown Flames lost to the Sharks 4-1.
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