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Flames fans leave Vagabond and walk to the Scotiabank Saddledome to watch the Calgary Flames take on the Dallas Stars in Calgary on March 27, 2019.

Leah Hennel

They are more than Canada’s best hockey team and the most surprising story in the NHL. The Calgary Flames are a rousing tonic for concerns over Alberta’s lethargic economy and the uncertainty of a coming election.

Bars are full. The Scotiabank Saddledome throbs with excitement. The struggling Oilers have opened the door for passion to rise for Calgary’s overachievers across a weary province.

A year after failing to qualify for the postseason, the Flames have the league’s third-best record. They have five players with 70 points or more, and have already clinched home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

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It is easily Calgary’s best team in many years. It harkens back to 1989, when the Flames won their last – and only – Stanley Cup. It is cause for a joyful revival that could not come at a better time.

“We are facing as difficult an economic headwind as the city has seen going back maybe to the [early] 1980s,” Ken King, the team’s president, says in a boardroom inside the arena on the Stampede Grounds. “The fun part for us in difficult times, if there is one, is that the success of the team so far and its impending playoff run is uplifting.

“The effect is wonderful and quite profound.”

People high-five on the street. They rub elbows as they quaff brews and debate who would be the Flames’ least troublesome first-round opponent.

“There are a lot more important things going on in the world than the playoffs, but not many that create as much fun,” King says.

At midday on Wednesday, Megan McKee stopped accepting reservations at the Vagabond Brew Pub. The establishment sits on the corner of Olympic Way, a few hundred metres from the Saddledome.

“We have 110 dinner reservations, and it’s a weeknight,” says McKee, who owns the Vagabond with her husband, Darren Moulds. “No matter how many seats we have, when the Flames play we always need more.”

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A few hours later, the place is jammed with patrons in Flames attire. Servers hustle plates of braised bison brisket and Cowtown Burgers to fans washing down their pregame meal with tall glasses of beer.

“People come in and are seated at a table beside someone they don’t know,” McKee says. “It’s a little awkward at first, but in no time they buy each other beers and become the best of friends.

“It is amazing how something as simple as a hockey game can change people’s lives.”

A collapse in global oil prices four years ago gave rise to a recession that caused unemployment to soar in Alberta and left a massive hole in the province’s finances. While there have been signs of a recovery, it has been slow and uneven. Since 2015, energy projects worth $158-billion have been cancelled or stalled. More than 180,000 people are out of work.

An election called for April 16 has taken on a nasty tone, with party leaders attacking one another, graffiti scrawled on campaign signs and hateful messages posted online.

“I have friends in oil and gas, land development and new home sales that have lost their jobs,” says Jack Vanstone, a landscape architect. “These are senior guys with teenage kids, and they have no idea when they are going to work again.

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“What they do is so specialized that they need a booming economy.”

A regular at the Vagabond, Vanstone arrives hours before puck drop and while others head to the Saddledome he stays to watch games on TV.

“I think the Flames are the only thing to be excited about in Alberta right now,” he says.

Spirits are buoyed.

“For a few hours all of Calgary’s concerns and issues, pipelines and elections and challenges fade and people are able to focus on something else,” King says. “It is not really important but it is valuable."

An extraordinary team-building exercise

Seeds for the Flames’ success were sown during a preseason trip to China. Over the course of eight days, they played the Boston Bruins in three exhibition contests in Shenzhen and Beijing and grew close through the many hours spent together.

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There were a few glitches – their first practice session was cancelled after a customs agent refused to green-light equipment bags and they were nearly stranded by a supertyphoon – but it turned into an extraordinary team-building exercise.

“We didn’t know it would turn out as well as it did,” King says. “There was a bit of trepidation beforehand about everything from time zones, to food, to language and accommodations.

“What happened gives you pause to ponder whether you should get your group isolated early every year to create an instant bond.”

The Flames brought in a new coach in Bill Peters and added eight players over the summer, including wingers James Neal and Elias Lindholm, defenceman Noah Hanifan and centre Derek Ryan.

“At the end of last year, I thought we took a step back,” says Brad Treliving, the Flames general manager. “We felt we had good pieces in place in certain areas, and others where we needed to be better.”

There were so many new faces that Treliving was glad to whisk everyone off to Asia.

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“It was a long way to go in preseason, but it was a chance to go to a place where they would have to be together,” he says.

On a day off, the Flames visited the Great Wall, rode down to the parking lot in toboggan-like slides, and then sat around swapping stories and drinking beer.

“They had a blast,” Treliving says. “The feedback that we got afterward was great. I thought that unless they were fooling me, there was going to be real good chemistry.”

Ryan, who came to the Flames from the Carolina Hurricanes along with coach Bill Peters, Hanifan and Lindholm, says the long trip helped him adjust to his new surroundings.

“I was like anybody else that has a new job,” Ryan says. “You worry on your first day of work and first year and wonder if you are going to fit in.

“Going to China forced us to spend time together and bond, and it was important for me coming in here in my first year."

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The Flames went 7-5-1 to start, but as soon as they got into November their record took off. They went 37-11-6 over the next four months and now sit atop the Western Conference.

“There weren’t any wild swings where we were lights out on a Monday and not good on a Wednesday,” Treliving says. “If you are a consistent long enough, you are going to be successful.”

It is only the fifth time in franchise history that the Flames have surpassed 100 points. They have nine players with 10 goals or more, and are the first team since the 2000-2001 Pittsburgh Penguins to have five with 70 or more points.

“We expected to make the playoffs last year, but we didn’t start well and we chased after them the whole time,” says Mark Giordano, Calgary’s 35-year-old captain. He has a career-high 72 points, near twice as many as he had last season. “When you do that, every loss feels like the end of the world and every win is a relief.

“It is a totally different feeling now.”

The Flames relocated to Calgary from Atlanta in 1980, and have played in the Saddledome since 1983. The arena is the second-oldest in the NHL after Madison Square Garden, which received a US$1-billion facelift in 2013.

Plans to build a $600-million arena on the Stampede Grounds are expected to be approved soon. Negotiations between the city and club are being conducted quietly. A previous deal between them collapsed in 2017. The hope is that the new rink will be an anchor for an entertainment district similar to the one around Roger Place in Edmonton.

The Flames have reached the Stanley Cup Finals three times. They lost in their first appearance in 1986 to the Montreal Canadiens, beat the Canadiens in a rematch in 1989, and lost in 2004 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games.

“When I think back to 2004, it takes my breath away,” King says. “We were so close.”

They failed to advance to the post-season in seven of the past 10 years and entered 2018-19 believing they had improved – but had no idea how much.

“If you can find somebody that will say they laid claim and predicted [this would happen], I’d like them brought to me,” King says. “They are either brilliant or clairvoyant or both.”

The Flames’ emergence as one of the NHL’s best teams has been a pleasant surprise and a rallying point for Albertans.

“What you recognize is that so many people rely on this team, not only for entertainment but for so much else,” Treliving says. “We play a vital role in the emotional barometer of the city. There are a lot of people that are invested in us financially and emotionally.”

Ardent followers are hurting

The Flames ownership group is more than casually interested in energy.

N. Murray Edwards and Allan Markin co-founded Canadian Natural Resources Limited, one of the world’s largest independent oil and gas producers. Jeffrey J. McCaig directs a different oil sands firm, and Alvin Libin presides over a private management services and investment concern with holdings in petroleum resource companies.

In January, the Flames reached out to a grassroots support group for the industry and painted logos that read “I [heart] Oil & Gas” at opposite ends of the ice in the Saddledome.

“We are apolitical, but that for us was a pretty simple supportive piece,” King says.

The gesture came as a surprise to Cody Battershill, the Calgary real estate agent who established Canada Action, an oil-sands and pipelines advocacy organization.

“It is truly amazing to have the support of the Flames,” Battershill says. “They came to us wanting to lend their voice behind us.

“It is such a difficult time for the industry. Since 2015, there has been nothing but a downward slope.”

Since 2015, companies have begun to move assets outside of Alberta. Thirty-one thousand people moved away from the province last year. Insolvencies rose 20 per cent.

“We have to remember how lucky we are to have the resources here that we do,” Battershill says. “It is a part our identity.”

Most of the Flames players earn salaries in the millions, but are not blind to the fact that ardent followers are hurting.

“The way the economy has gone hasn’t been good,” Mike Smith, a goalie, says. “When you think about that, it is amazing how passionate people are.

“We want to do everything we can to be the talk of the town, lift their spirits and help them forget about other things.”

During the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals, upward of 100,000 fans gathered on game nights along 17th Avenue near the Saddledome to celebrate the Flames success. The stretch became known as the Red Mile, and served as a predecessor to other NHL street parties, including the Whiteout in Winnipeg.

Plans are under way for the Red Mile’s return when the playoffs begin the week after next.

“If we can repeat what we did in 2004 only with a better ending, it will produce a real galvanizing effect,” King says.

The fans here have been amazing

Megan McKee moved to Calgary from Toronto 15 years ago, and opened the Vagabond in 2014. On nights when the Flames are off, she waits on tables and her husband tends bar.

On Wednesday, 25 servers were run ragged in the hours that preceded a game against the Dallas Stars. Most headed to the Saddledome at the last minute, but some stayed to whoop it up together and watch on TV.

“It is the first thing in a long time that people here are dedicated to,” McKee says. “We haven’t had a lot of fun in Calgary with what has been going on.

“The city hit a rough patch, but the Flames are a unifying factor. They create excitement and something people can rally around. It’s a harmonizing love.”

Fans adore the Flames, and the Flames appreciate the fans.

After practice one day this week, Johnny Gaudreau stopped to sign autographs through the window of his SUV as he left the players’ parking lot.

After a few minutes, he began to pull away, and then suddenly hit his brakes and backed up.

“I looked in my rear-view mirror and realized I forgot a kid and came back so I could sign his ball cap,” says Gaudreau, one of the team’s biggest stars. “The fans here have been amazing to me.”

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