Tonight, Olli Jokinen recorded a hat trick and the Flames scored more than three goals for what feels like the first time in forever, but there was something much bigger about this game which I am about to delve into in unnecessary detail: Miikka Kiprusoff's 300th career win.
Gather round, children, for this is the story of how I became a Miikka Kiprusoff fan and, ostensibly, a Flames fan.
It was the spring of 2004 (yeah, yeah call me a bandwagoner and get it over with). Jarome Iginla was there. Calgary was playing the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs, a 3 vs. 6 match-up which they weren't expected to win.
One of my friends was having people over to watch the game (I can't remember which one it was precisely), and I wasn't really into hockey at the time (I was in eighth grade, and had what I thought were more important things to worry about), but I knew it was a big deal. After all, this was the first time the Flames had made the playoffs in seven years.
There we were watching the game in my friend's basement, a bunch of 13-year-old girls, not really cognizant of the events being played out in front of us, when all of a sudden something caught our attention. Kiprusoff, the Flames' goalie who had been acquired earlier in the season and taken over for the injured Roman Turek, had made one of the many improbable saves that would go on to characterize his career with the team. "Who's that?" we all asked, I'd never heard of him before. I horribly bungled his name upon first hearing it, but I was in hockey love. For the rest of the game I was hooked, I'd never seen anything like it before.
Over the remainder of the post-season I dedicated myself to becoming more familiar with the game and its players, but I wouldn't really perfect my craft until the lockout year and the subsequent NHL season. I made an ill-advised trip to the infamous Red Mile where I participated in chants of "shirts off for Kiprusoff," and "Flames in six, show us your..." well, you know the rest.
Anyway, I paid a few more visits to my friend's basement, the place where I had first discovered the game, before the Flames' 2004 playoff run ended in a particularly soul-crushing fashion in early June. I couldn't wait for next season when it could all potentially happen again, but alas, the 2004-05 NHL Lockout rudely interrupted that dream for me. I followed the developments in the dispute almost obsessively, and watched as the team I had fallen for changed before my eyes. Conroy, Gelinas, out; Daymond Langkow, in. But one thing remained constant, and that was Kipper.
Him and the Flames got off to a horribly slow start to kick off the 2005-06 season, leaving some wondering what had happened to the goaltender who had set a record with a 1.69 GAA the previous season. But the Flames bounced back. That year, an offensively-challenged squad that inspired intangible words like "heart" and "grit" more than "skill" skyrocketed to the top of their division with one of the best home records in the league thanks to Miikka Kiprusoff.
I followed Kipper's stats obsessively that year. I documented every win and loss, I knew his GAA, his SV%, the number of goals he'd allowed, and the number of shutouts he recorded. I was cleaning out my old room back in Calgary over Christmas and I found a picture that I had cut out of the Calgary Herald commemorating his 40th win of the season, which I believe was some sort of Flames record. The Flames met the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the playoffs that spring, a series fans thought the Division champs should easily capture. My father had gotten tickets to Game Two at home, and surprisingly, I did not yet own any official Flames apparel other than a tiny kid-sized jersey that belonged to my sister which I had worn religiously during the season.
Before the game I went out and bought the only thing they had left in stock at the mall: a men's XXL Kiprusoff "shersey," which I wore that night. The Flames lost that game 4-3 and went on to lose the series by the same score after their lack of scoring caught up to them in an embarrassing Game Seven loss on home ice, but that summer Kipper went on to capture the Vezina trophy and the William Jennings trophy for the lowest GAA in the league.
That t-shirt is still as large, only faded and with a few small holes in it from general wear and tear. Needless to say my collection of Flames apparel has grown since then, but I still can't bring myself to purchase a new one or get rid of it as tonight, almost six years later, Miikka Kiprusoff's 300th career win enters the record books along with his numerous other achievements.
I understand the proponents of the Trade Kiprusoff Movement, I really do. I see its merits and partially, I agree. But Miikka Kiprusoff has not followed the traditional path of an NHL goaltender's decline. Even as a 35-year-old, he has value, and that speaks louder than ever when he plays like he did tonight. Even if games like this are no longer a constant for him, Flames fans take them for granted; there are teams out there that would kill for Kipper's now-occasional brilliance, bailing his team out when they need it most and often when they least deserve it. Is he worth his price tag? No, and many goalies out there aren't because of the relative similarity in skill amongst NHL-calibre 'tenders, but his cap hit is pennies compared to what he's done for this team since arriving as an inexperienced backup nearly eight years ago. Where would this team be without Kiprusoff? Nowhere near a playoff spot, that's for certain, but whether that is a good or bad thing still remains up for debate.
It would be lovely to see him cap off his career with a Stanley Cup, he deserves it more than anyone else on this Flames team not named Jarome Iginla. Both players have put this team on their backs and dragged them, kicking and screaming, to victory; but neither would make their desire to win with any other team known publicly, it's not their style. And it's my sincerest hope that I will get to see both of them retire as Flames.
So here's to Miikka Kiprusoff, a member of a truly elite club who will always be #1 in the eyes of this Flames fan.
I am forever grateful to you for dragging me into the unhealthy, love-hate relationship characterized by extreme highs and extreme lows that I now have with this team.
Here's to 300, and (hopefully) more to come!