Each and every spring, fervent hockey fans face a troubling dilemma. On one hand, the weather is getting warmer and loved ones are enticing them to join them on decks, patios and other outdoor areas. On the other hand, the National Hockey League post-season is soon to begin, and the primary way a hockey fan enjoys the majesty of the Stanley Cup playoffs is by parking themselves in front of a television screen for months on end.
Unless they are a Calgary Flames fan.
Spring is a different season for Flames fans than it is for other hockey fans. While spring presents hope and renewal for 16 teams, the season represents impending disappointment and frustration for Flames fans -- even if the team makes the playoffs. For the past 20 seasons, the Flames have suffered disappointment in their quest to win the Stanley Cup. For most of those seasons, the team has been reasonably competitive. As a result, the crippling disappointment of not being champions has been delayed. Rather than admitting defeat in March, the Flames postpone the agony until April and bow out in the first round of the playoffs instead. Seen in this light, the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals run was merely the Flames extending their fans' torment a bit longer.
Every year, the Calgary Flames attempt to warm fans up with promises that this season will be different than all the others. They've learned hard lessons from the past year and they're ready to make changes that will bring Calgary a Stanley Cup championship. Here's a new coach, some free agent signings and a couple big trades to dazzle fandom into giving the Flames another chance. For a few months, things look promising again as the team puts together a few wins and shows it can give fans what they want. Key team members like Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff will go to the Olympics and come back with medals. But eventually things go south and fans are left disappointed with the team for letting them down and themselves for allowing themselves to cheer for the team for another season.
But just like the past 20 soul-crushing disappointments they've put their fans through, this one will be followed by empty promises and more false hope. The Flames can replace management, fire coaches or trade away the core of the team, but all those moves will be bland superficialities compared to the true heart of the matter. The Flames and their fans are stuck in a never-ending cycle, fueled by both sides' symbiotic need of the other. The team needs the fans to fill the arena, to buy merchandise and make the players feel important. The fans need the Flames to live vicariously through, to fill the sporting void in the city and provide something to do during the frightfully cold and dull November-to-February period. An early playoff elimination won't end the cycle, it'll merely give both sides a short break from it.
The Flames being eliminated from the playoffs this early, the earliest in the Sutter Era, gives fans a respite. Fans can re-connect with loved ones they haven't spoken to in months, try to comprehend Lost and maybe go outside. The disappointment will soon fade and they'll get back on their feet feeling good about the future. Soon September will arrive and the Flames will come a-callin' once more, telling fans it'll be different next year. And like fools, we'll believe them, and the cycle will begin anew.
And we'll have nobody to blame but ourselves.