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Flames dodge disaster, not embarrassment on O’Reilly

Credibility has been an issue for the Calgary Flames for some time now. But before Friday, most of the credibility questions revolved around the uncertain organizational path of an NHL team that generally does little more than tread water.

The Flames haven't been good enough to make the playoffs for the past three seasons, but they haven't been bad enough to earn a high draft choice either.

People wonder: Where is the plan? What is the future? And wouldn't it be nice to have even a single high-end prospect along the lines of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Tyler Seguin, so there's a glimmer of hope for tomorrow?

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Last Thursday, the Flames took a bold step to strengthen their lineup in the here-and-now by signing restricted free-agent forward Ryan O'Reilly to an offer sheet – a rare event in the NHL old boy's club, where teams generally keep their hands off other people's property.

That the Flames tried to poach O'Reilly away from a divisional rival was controversial for two reasons: One, they offered him a lot more money than the Colorado Avalanche wanted to pay him – $10-million (U.S.) over two years. And two, they were prepared to surrender first- and third-round draft choices as compensation, had their bid for his services been successful.

It wasn't. Colorado matched the offer – and that appeared to be the end of it, a 24-hour sensation, here today, gone tomorrow.

That is, until Friday, when Sportsnet hockey reporter Chris Johnston skimmed the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that passes for a new collective agreement these days, and discovered the Flames had potentially made an egregious error in their pitch to O'Reilly.

Because O'Reilly had played two games in the Russia-based KHL for Magnitogorsk following the Jan. 19, 2013, start of the shortened NHL season, the Flames would have been obliged to offer O'Reilly on waivers if they'd won the bidding for his services.

Or at least, that is the official NHL interpretation of events.

The Flames offered a different take on the matter, issuing their own statement Friday, saying their view of "the transition rules governing restricted free agents was, and continues to be, different than the NHL's current interpretation." The Flames were "prepared to advance our position with the NHL," but conveniently no longer had to "in light of Colorado's having matched the offer sheet. It is now an academic point."

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Well, okay.

The Flames could have advanced their position with the NHL's legal minds until they were blue in the face, but if they'd lost the argument, it would have been a catastrophic blunder.

Think about how embarrassed the Flames would have been under that scenario – surrendering two draft choices to Colorado as compensation for signing O'Reilly, and then losing him immediately to, likely the 30th place Columbus Blue Jackets, on waivers.

That would have constituted a firing offence for general manager Jay Feaster, even if he were to argue there is room for interpretation in the new and complex rewording of the NHL waiver rules – and how they apply to players returning in-season from Europe.

That the Flames went merrily down this path without first getting the matter clarified by the NHL's hockey operations department represents a grievous oversight. You cannot take this sort of a significant, far-reaching step without due diligence, new CBA or not.

In the end, the Flames narrowly averted a disaster. The only ill effect was it placed a team – sputtering near the bottom of the standings again – in the limelight for all the wrong reasons.

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Short-term, the storm will likely blow over. Long-term, you wonder.

Mulligans may be fine in golf, but the world of professional sport rarely offers up a lot of do-overs before heads start to roll.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More


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