Life after Jarome Iginla (and Miikka Kiprusoff and Jay Bouwmeester) began Wednesday with medicals at the University of Calgary.
For the first time in 17 years, Iginla wasn't at the Calgary Flames training camp, spreading his usual brand optimism with a big, open smile on his face.
There were many incarnations of the Flames during Iginla's tenure – good teams, bad teams and a whole lot of middle-of-the-pack teams – but it never once changed his attitude or posture toward the season during camp. He is a believer in the power of positive thinking, and it didn't falter until near the end of the 2013 season, when it became clear the Flames weren't going anywhere – but he likely was.
Only then did it appear as if all the losing finally got to him.
So while Iginla now adjusts to life in Boston after failing to win the Stanley Cup following a trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the role of designated cheerleader for the 2013-14 season falls to head coach Bob Hartley. Like Iginla, Hartley is an unabashed optimist, and likely the perfect coach for this team at this time in its redevelopment.
"In Jarome, we lost a franchise player, we lost a captain and we lost a great individual," Hartley said. "But at the same time, this is pro sport.
"The No. 1 thing is I don't expect and I didn't ask anyone to become Jarome Iginla No. 2. His absence only creates responsibilities for other players – on-ice responsibilities, leadership responsibilities, community responsibilities. That's stuff we may have to share within our group. But at the same time, I think it's a very positive challenge.
"The same thing goes with Kipper. Those two guys, they were basically the poster boys for the franchise. … Pro sport is like business or life in general. It goes in cycles. My approach to the players is: We're starting a new chapter in Flames history – and we need to start it in the right way."
Among the forwards who finished last season in Calgary, Alex Tanguay was also shipped out (to the Colorado Avalanche). The veteran returning core features Mike Cammalleri, Curtis Glencross, Jiri Hudler, Matt Stajan and, on defence, the underrated Mark Giordano plus power-play quarterback Dennis Wideman.
Whatever progress the Flames (19-25-4 in the lockout-shortened 2013 season) hope to make will eventually rest on how some of their young players – from 2013 first-round draft choice Sean Monahan to Sven Baertschi to Mikael Backlund – develop.
Sometimes, for veteran players on rebuilding teams, maintaining a good attitude throughout a losing season can be a challenge. Cammalleri is on an expiring contract, and if he has a good season, he will likely be prime trade bait at the deadline. As for the others, they are signed to multiyear deals and as a result, may need to see the lean years through.
"It's pretty normal and it's human nature to get to a certain point in your life, where you start to feel comfortable," Hartley said, "but there's nothing wrong with trying to challenge yourself and say, 'I'm going to bring my career to another level. What can I do next – from a leadership or conditioning or on-ice standing – to do that?'
"We talked to those guys many times throughout the summer, and since they've come back. It's added responsibility for them, but I think if it's all done well, it's going to be very positive."
Hartley has won at every level of hockey – junior, minor pro, internationally and in the NHL (Stanley Cup in 2001 with the Avs) – and thus believes anything is possible; and every year, some dark-horse team inexplicably emerges to challenge for a playoff spot.
The Columbus Blue Jackets were that team last season. Far and away the worst team in 2011-12, Columbus, thanks to goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, made a push for the playoffs and managed almost as many points in a 48-game schedule (55) as they did in the 82-game schedule (65) the year before.
Goaltending will be the wild card in Calgary, which has a United Nations of candidates auditioning to replace Kiprusoff.
Reto Berra, acquired from the St. Louis Blues in the Bouwmeester trade, played last season in Switzerland, Karri Ramo in Russia, Joni Ortio in Finland. Joey MacDonald was Kiprusoff's backup, and won as many games (eight) as the former Vézina Trophy winner did.
It's an open competition and will be the primary storyline in training camp.
Hartley coached Zurich to the Swiss championship two years ago, and thus knows Berra first-hand.
"I saw this guy win games by himself," the coach said. "He's a big-size goalie. Plus, a very interesting point that plays in his favour in the NHL is … he's a [goalie guru] François Allaire disciple. I talked to François over the summer, and he told me Reto was by far one of his best students for years, and he feels this guy can really be a star at the NHL level."
As for Ramo, Hartley got a scouting report from former NHLer Slava Kozlov, who gave a similar ringing endorsement.
"Slava is like my own personal Russian scout and he really likes Ramo," Hartley said. "The reports I got from the Finnish league is that Ortio was in the top two goalies. So we definitely have a shortage of NHL experience in the crease, but we have four pros battling for the No. 1 spot."
And if one or more can emerge, maybe the nights won't be quite so long in Calgary this season after all.
"You can't win if you don't get the saves," Hartley said. "Quality goaltending also brings confidence to your team. … Everything looks so much better if you have a good goalie."