Johnson: Kiprusoff’s final game in the Saddledome could come as early as Wednesday night
With indications pointing to storied Flames goalie hanging up the pads after the season, fans need to give him a proper send-off
The last send-off of an icon wasn’t what a city had envisioned, or the man merited.
Ghostly reminders of past glories, irretrievable greatness, indelible moments, relegated to colour-splash pixels up on a JumboTron during a TV timeout. Jarome Iginla was actually, physically, in the air, cruising at around 30,000 feet, winging his way to the banks of the Allegheny, while 19,289 rose as one to salute his vast accomplishments, his lasting legacy, as a Calgary Flame.
“Really?” marvelled Iginla two days later, when informed of the tribute second-hand by a visiting scribbler/stalker at the Consol Energy Center, kitty-corner from downtown Pittsburgh. “I appreciate that.”
A wistful smile.
“Wish I’d had the chance to be there.”
Miikka Kiprusoff, luckily enough, has his chance.
With mounting speculation that the flexible Finn has in fact decided to retire at season’s end, Wednesday night or maybe Friday might just be the last opportunity for fans to say goodbye to the finest goaltending talent this franchise has ever known.
To stand up one final time for a pickpocket with fingers as light as one of Fagin’s lads.
To salute a singular talent.
To let him know how much he’s meant to the big team in this town.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it,” was as much as Kiprusoff would concede publicly on Tuesday. “Especially now when you guys bring it up. But . . . yeah. Like I say, there’s a chance.”
Deep down, in his heart, you sense, he’s made the call.
With a year left on a contract that dips to $1.5 million next season, faced at 36 with the drawn-out pain of an organizational rebuild, dissatisfied with the season he’s suffered through and his workload since returning from a month-long knee injury, there seems no way back now.
The timbre of Kiprusoff’s voice, his very body-language belies the political correctness of the “wait-until-summer” mantra he’s adopted since trade-deadline day. When he says “I don’t think it’s the right time to make any decisions” it can be interpreted as “I don’t think it’s the right time to announce my decision.”
Even his teammates, present and past, those who’ve marvelled at his Cirque du Soleil style the longest, sound as if they’re bracing themselves for the inevitable.
“The changes we’ve seen here this year, the new direction, I guess this might be another part of it,” reasoned assistant coach Martin Gelinas, the OT goal-scoring hero to Kiprusoff’s door-slammer throughout the Cup final run nine years ago. “In 2004, he was incredible. We won a lot of games, a lot of playoff games, because of Kipper. He has so many strengths as a goalie, but for me, the most important was that at game time, he wanted to be the guy, the difference-maker.
“It’d be sad, if that’s what he decides.
“But if he feels it’s time for him to go, that’s the way it is.”
Two starts remain at the Scotiabank Saddledome before the Flames embark on a four-game road junket to play out yet another string of another season gone wrong. Kiprusoff, after three games perched on the end of the bench modelling ball caps and nursing a suspicious “twisted arm” injury, gets the call Wednesday against the Detroit Red Wings.
Friday against the Anaheim Ducks is, well, anyone’s guess.
“Mac (Joey MacDonald) has been red-hot,” said Kiprusoff diplomatically. “He’s playing so well. They don’t want to change the goalie that’s playing that well. But I’m getting my chance (tonight) and I’ll try to do my best.”
At his best that best was the best.
So enjoy the show, good, bad or indifferent. Win or lose. Miikka Kiprusoff long ago earned such indulgences.
“He was The Repairman,” lauded former Flames’ goaltending coach David Marcoux. “Whatever needed fixing, Miikka fixed it.
“Taking him for granted? Yes. I think so. Fans here maybe got a little spoiled, seeing him play at such a high level for so many years. But I also think the people of Calgary, the diehard fans who are actually at the games or watching all the time on TV, know what he brought to the table almost every night.
“In a sense, he’s partly responsible for the situation the organization finds itself in now. Because of how good he was, how he papered over cracks, he kind of falsified the results, made the (team) performances look better than they actually were.
“Was he perfect? No. Nobody is. But he brought it all to his hockey club and was accountable to his teammates. You ask anybody from 2003 to today ‘Do you trust Miikka Kiprusoff?’ and the answer would be unanimous.”
If we are indeed watching the final countdown, this hasn’t been the happiest of exits. That knee injury cost him a month. Despite flashes of the customary brilliance, he never has found that peerless Kiprusoff rhythm. He ranks 49th, dead last, in save percentage (.872), 48th in goals-against-average (3.61) and 43rd in wins (6) among goaltenders this season. No shutouts. And he took some unwarranted flak for vetoing a late-season trade to Toronto (Hmmm, Iginla was selfish for leaving, Kiprusoff was selfish for staying. So, people, which will it be?).
Possibly he feels his powers dwindling, could be the task he sees on the horizon too daunting. Maybe he’s just come to a point in his life where he has a hankering to put his feet up and go fishing. They’re all understandable reasons.
But for a decade, given what was in front of him, a case could be made for this man being the best goaltender to be found anywhere on this planet. Go on, name one better. Selecting a favourite Kiprusoff moment is as difficult as trying to choose a favourite Sinatra saloon song or the most romantic spot in Paris.
If the trading of Jarome Iginla three weeks ago signalled for many the end of an era, the departure of Miikka Kiprusoff would make it official.
At least No. 34 shouldn’t have to hear the applause second hand.
Don’t wait, though, the window of opportunity is closing fast. Wednesday. Maybe Friday. Depending.
One final chance for fans to stand up. To let him soak up the appreciation. To deliver the send-off he so richly deserves. Watch. Enjoy.
Chances are, around here you will never see the like again.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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