March 27, 2013: the Flames have just come back to Calgary after a 2-0 shutout loss in Chicago. They have a game tonight, the second of a back to back. The trade deadline is about a week away, and it feels like the entire city of Calgary is on pins and needles: something's gotta happen. Something's gonna happen.
It's a game day, so the news comes pretty quick. In the afternoon, a special announcement: Jarome Iginla will be a healthy scratch tonight.
I remember my heart skipping a beat as the tweet came on my timeline, my entire body freezing for a moment before I shot up, grabbed my Iginla jersey, donned it and rushed back to my computer, curling up in a ball and saying, "No, no, no," the entire time while frantically refreshing twitter for any additional news.
After years of hanging on to the franchise leader for far too long, it was finally coming to an end.
What followed was a wild night. The Flames still had a game to play, even with Iginla not in the building. Mike Cammalleri, one of Iginla's friends, scored two goals in the second period to lead the Flames to a 4-3 victory over the Avalanche.
During the second intermission, Aaron Ward said he was going to Boston (for Matt Bartkowski, Alexander Khokhlachev, and a first). Well after the game had ended, Bob McKenzie said he was going to Pittsburgh (for Ben Hanowski, Kenny Agostino, and a first).
It was Pittsburgh. And that was it. The Flames did what finally had to be done, and traded Jarome Iginla.
What did they get back?
They waited too long to trade him. Management, clinging to the desperate notion that "if we can just squeak into the playoffs, we'll have a shot at going all the way" kept Iginla, even as the Flames fell short of the playoffs year after year after year.
Finally, in the last year of Iginla's contract, it became obvious it wasn't going to happen.
The rebuild was officially on, but far too late. The package for the greatest player the Flames franchise has ever seen can only be described as mediocre at best, but that's what happens when you trade away an aging veteran.
Hanowski probably won't be a regular NHLer, his skating isn't good enough. Agostino has a shot, but he's only just getting his professional career started. Morgan Klimchuk, the first, may very well contribute to the Flames down the line, but is young, and still playing in the WHL.
The immediate aftermath
The Flames went 7-10 over the rest of the season, finishing as the sixth worst team in the league and subsequently drafting Sean Monahan. The initial zombie-like atmosphere over the team - they lost five straight after the trade, including an 8-2 blowout loss to the Oilers - faded with time.
It was replaced with youth and enthusiasm, of which Hanowski was a part for five games. The Flames were suddenly winning again, and there were a lot of young players contributing: Mikael Backlund. TJ Brodie. Roman Horak. Max Reinhart. Mark Cundari. Ben Hanowski got a goal. Sven Baertschi went on a seven game point streak.
It was a new era.
A new captain
It's not like filling Iginla's shoes was going to be an easy thing, but the choice for the next captain was obvious and unanimous: Mark Giordano.
Prior to this season, Giordano was recognized as a really good player. His career high in points was from three seasons ago, at 43 over 82 games. He generally put up good possession numbers, but seemed to struggle against top flight competition.
Really, he was a really, really, really good third defenceman.
That thought is gone. Giordano has had a stunning, mind blowing career year since being named the next Flames captain. He's already matched that career high in points over just 55 games this season. His previous career high for goals scored was 11; he has 12 this season with nine games to go. His corsi last season was 47.5%, not terrible, but not even. This season it's 54.2%, and that's while playing some of the hardest minutes of the entire team.
He's 30, so he's in his prime, and may be exiting it when the Flames are ready to compete again. But for now, in Calgary's first season in a decade with a new captain, that captain is providing immediate dividends.
A new attitude
Possibly the biggest change to the Flames has been the way they've played.
When Iginla was a member of the Flames, fans could often expect an uninspired, insipid effort from the team. This would be a team built to try to make the eighth seed of the playoffs, and a team that would fail every time.
Trading Iginla signalled the beginning of the rebuild. And with that, as seen in the initial weeks following the trade, enthusiastic youth took over. They didn't always win, but they always put the effort in. The Flames were fun to watch again.
That carried over to this season, with an added bonus: even more youth, even more rookies. The Flames opened the season with TJ Brodie, Mikael Backlund, Lance Bouma, Sean Monahan, and Sven Baertschi: five players under the age of 25. Joe Colborne joined them a game later. Paul Byron, initially an injury call up, became a fixture about two months into the season. On a few nights, when injuries were particularly bad, as many as eight rookies would be in the lineup for the Flames. This was unheard of.
The team, headed by Bob Hartley, preached a strong work ethic. It wasn't always successful, but it gained them a national reputation that has stuck throughout the season: they will outwork you, and if you let them, they will win. It isn't a team that's going to get by on talent alone, and yet, they've succeeded in occasionally giving significantly better teams fits by virtue of just how hard they work and how they never quit.
Despite all the losing - and it's been mostly losing - this season has been one of the most entertaining as a Flames fan in years. The team has changed over the course of a year from a group of entitled veterans to enthusiastic, hard-working kids. It's undeniably fun to watch.
A better year
The Flames are better off than they were a year ago. Maybe not so much in the standings - they're still pretty bad - but trading Iginla gave the franchise the chance to let go and stop forcing something that was never going to happen.
Of course we all want to see Jarome Iginla lift the Stanley Cup, preferably while wearing a Calgary Flames jersey. (Well, we probably just want to see Iggy in the Flaming C again in general.) The likelihood of that is really, really low. But by finally giving up on that aspiration, the Flames franchise was able to take a step forward.
They have talent. They have young prospects. They have heart. They have a future.
Compare that to one year ago today, the Flames coming off a pathetic, pointless shutout loss, with no direction other than to strive for an eighth place finish and pray for a miracle.
The past year has had its downs, its lows, and its frustrations, but it has also brought so much to look forward to; so much that never would have happened if Iginla was still in Calgary. The future may be far off, but it's a year closer, and it's bright.
(Anyway, go Bruins.)