There has always been a strange and mostly inexplicable trend in Alberta professional hockey circles, where most of the really Calgary-born players end up playing in Edmonton for the Oilers and most of the Edmonton-area players end up in Calgary. For years, the local boy from St. Albert, Jarome Iginla, was captain in Calgary, while Jason Smith was captain in Edmonton.
The primary exceptions to the rule came in the heyday of the Battle of Alberta, when a pair of locals – Grant Fuhr and Mike Vernon – played goal for the respective teams.
But it was not always smooth sailing for either. Fuhr once called Edmonton fans “jerks” because they were on him so hard. Vernon had to deal with boo-birds for most of his career, despite leading Calgary to its one-and-only Stanley Cup championship in 1989 and setting all the franchise goaltending records until Miikka Kiprusoff came along.
Which is why this year’s edition of the Flames is unique: For Sunday’s home opener against the Vancouver Canucks, the Flames had not one but two home-grown players in the lineup, centre Joe Colborne and winger T.J. Galiardi. Both joined the team in off-season trades, Galiardi from the San Jose Sharks, where he was a victim of the salary-cap numbers game; and Colborne, at the end of training camp, from the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he wasn’t going to crack the lineup but would likely have been lost to the team on waivers if they’d tried to send him to the minors.
Colborne is on what coach Bob Hartley called a “crash course” to learn the team’s system, having arrived so late in the game. For the season opener in Washington, the Flames parked him beside two coaches in the press box, who gave him a sense of how the team wants to play.
Then Matt Stajan, the No. 1 centre on a rebuilding team, was lost with a deep laceration and Colborne was immediately pushed into service, playing on a line with Curtis Glencross and David Jones.
“Injuries always open the door for some new responsibilities for other players,” Hartley said. “It gives us a chance to learn more about [Sean] Monahan and Colborne and those guys – get them quality ice time in key situations. That’s when you learn. That’s when you get better.
“He’s on fast-forward mode, that’s how I put it to him. Trades, sometimes, players are always happy or unhappy with them, but it’s always unfair to them to come in because you always need to give them time to find their feet and learn the new ways of doing things. Hockey’s hockey, but each organization and each coach has different ways of doing things, so …”
For the record, Colborne is happy about this trade, because it gives him a legitimate chance to play as an NHL regular, something that likely wouldn’t have happened in Toronto, where he was behind Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Dave Bolland and Jay McClement on the depth chart.
Colborne was born in January, 1990, so about seven months after the Flames won their Stanley Cup. His early heroes were all key members of that championship team – defenceman Al MacInnis, plus centres Joe Nieuwendyk and Joel Otto.
Otto is an interesting frame of reference because ideally, the type of player Otto became – a gentle giant, who played a strong two-way game and couldn’t be intimidated, even playing against Mark Messier. Vernon, meanwhile, stayed around until the end of the 1993-94 season, and he once described the challenges of playing in his hometown this way: “It’s tough because you’ve got your job playing hockey, which is first. Then you have your family and your friends and the promotions you do. To find time for everybody is difficult.”
And that was in the days before cellphones became ubiquitous.
“I’ve had to kind of distance myself from my phone the last few days and just kind of lay low,” acknowledged Colborne, who was deluged with ticket requests for the opener and ultimately had to put a cap on it. Others from his inner circle will need to wait until later in the season to get in to see him play, but even then ... “There’s going to be a big crew here tonight,” he said. When you come back to the place you dreamt of playing your whole life, it’s pretty special.”
And while Hartley concedes that there are advantages and disadvantages to playing for your hometown team, ultimately he believes: “It’s not where you’re from, it’s who you are as a person, your values, how you were raised by your parents. Those two guys, they’re great guys to be around. They’re fun. They want to learn. They love the city. I think that adds positive pressure to them.
“You can analyze pressure from both a negative and a positive standpoint. Me, I rarely use pressure. I use challenge. This is a positive challenge. You see all the local rinks around here, all the local kids coming out of the rinks in the morning – and I’m sure for T.J. and Joe, you see those kids and you say, ‘here I was, maybe 15 or 20 years ago.’ You can only draw positives form it.”
Colborne played just a little over 12 minutes in his Flames’ debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets and on Saturday, the coaching staff sat him down for a lengthy video session, in which they pored over every shift. Calgary returned home from its two-game swing with three of a possible four points, a good start for a team expected to struggle in the early stages of a rebuilding program. It will also be Calgary’s first regular-season NHL game since a flood last June forced massive repairs to its home, the Scotiabank Saddledome.
“It’s a good day for us,” Hartley said on Sunday morning. “Looking at training camp, looking at the way we played on the road and also looking at how this rink was a few weeks ago, those are three very positive things around us that we can build on and draw lots of motivation and positives from. But at the same time, now we have to bring it on the ice, in front of our fans, and put on a good game.”