Calgary, Alberta — All of Canada has been consumed by Flames, and the national obsession with Calgary's overachieving hockey club is about to spread.
The sixth-seeded Calgary Flames advanced to the Stanley Cup finals Wednesday night, winning the Western Conference finals in six games over the San Jose Sharks. From the 17th Avenue entertainment district to the streets around the Saddledome, fans partied until dawn, which arrives early up north in Alberta.
After missing the playoffs in each of the previous seven seasons, the Flames will open the final round Tuesday in Tampa Bay or Philadelphia. It's not quite a worst-to-first transformation, since Calgary finished 12th in the conference last spring -- but it's more than the Flames or their fans ever imagined.
"I can honestly say I hoped we'd be here, but I didn't expect it," said Craig Conroy, who centers the Flames' dangerous top line. "It's just more than anybody expected. We're appreciating every moment of this."
Despite the festive atmosphere in the Saddledome after the clinching win, the Flames aren't doing much celebrating yet. Thanks to a charismatic captain, a humble roster and a coach who won't tolerate individual aggrandizement, they haven't lost their focus -- or their appreciation for their humble roots in this hockey-crazed community.
Just look at captain Jarome Iginla, who stayed late at the Saddledome following Game 6, chatting for two hours with fans after the Flames finished off another opponent of higher regard and higher expectations.
"They don't get enough credit for how great a hockey city this is," said Iginla, who grew up in Edmonton rooting against the Flames. "Easily, easily one of the best in the NHL, if not the best. You look around the league when other teams went through tough times and they were out of the playoffs. We were still getting 14, 15,000 fans."
Game 6 was a celebration of that commitment. The Flames had won just three of their first eight home games in the postseason, but they took an early lead and hung on against San Jose's blistering third-period attack.
Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, whose arrival in a November trade with the Sharks transformed the season, did most of the work and got most of the credit. But the fans cheered every blocked shot, every save and every iced puck as Calgary clung to its lead.
"This is really for the fans," defenseman Steve Montador said. "We know what they've been through up here, and they never let us down."
The city grinds to a halt during playoff games, and everybody in town seems to own something with the flaming "C" logo. Radio stations have written several song parodies honoring the team, and they all seem to be in heavy rotation.
With their first conference championship in 15 years, the Flames are the first Canadian club in the finals since Vancouver in 1994. A Canadian champion hasn't reigned over the NHL since Montreal won the Cup in 1993; Canada's longest previous drought in league history was a mere five seasons.
And that means something to a nation that embraces hockey as a pastime, religion and leading export.
But Sutter says only the Canadian national team represents Canada, and he's got a point. The Flames have a Finnish goalie, five European skaters and three American regulars; every team in the NHL has a crowd of Canadians on its roster.
No matter: Canada loves the home team, and the Flames have the backing of nearly everybody north of the border.
"Everybody is talking about Calgary and what we have accomplished so far," Martin Gelinas said. "Not only we're representing Calgary, but Canada. And it's an opportunity that doesn't come very often."