As the only team excused in all categories from National Hockey League all-star participation, the Calgary Flames have a lot to ponder in their collective weekend away from the rink.
For veteran centre Craig Conroy, the focus will be on his playing future. The Flames put Conroy on waivers this week and when he cleared, gave him a choice between playing for their American Hockey League affiliate in Abbotsford, B.C., or retiring. Conroy attracted a packed room of reporters Thursday to announce that he would take the organization up on its offer and mull over his options with his family for the next 72 hours before presenting his final decision next week.
Conroy indicated that he was leaning toward retirement, but acknowledged that he'd received a call from Abbotsford Flames coach Jim Playfair, encouraging him to play there. It was Playfair's call - plus the fact that he didn't want to rush into a decision - that prompted Conroy to defer his decision.
As for Conroy's former teammates, their thoughts will focus mostly on an unexpected January to remember, in which they won their final four games before the all-star break, gained points in nine of the last 10 games, and suddenly find themselves only two points out of a playoff spot in the tight Western Conference.
By defeating the injury-riddled St. Louis Blues Wednesday, Calgary jumped to 11th place from 14th. Though the Flames are still touch and go to earn a playoff spot, they are now in the mix.
The trick will be to carry their momentum out of the break, when they open with a pair of road games, against the Nashville Predators and the Atlanta Thrashers. If the Flames drop those two matches, the optimism on display in the team's dressing room could disappear in a heartbeat.
It may just be a coincidence, but ever since Christmas, when the organization asked former general manager Darryl Sutter to step aside, the team seems to have more of a spring in its collective step. Further back, on Dec. 7, the Flames had been overtaken in the standings by the rebuilding Edmonton Oilers (both teams had 24 points at that juncture, but Edmonton held a game in hand, meaning Calgary was listed as 15th out of 15 in the conference).
Coach Brent Sutter picked a date somewhere between the two to trace the beginning of the turnaround.
"It didn't start in the last three or four games," Sutter said. "It's something we've been working at and building toward. Since the 23rd of December, we've had a pretty good roll going. We've had the odd game where we haven't played as well as we would have liked, but we've been resilient. Our team has worked. We've competed hard, and we've found ways to win games.
"We've found ways to win some tight games and we've found ways to score some goals to win some games more handily than in the past, which is a very encouraging sign. I just like the way the team is gelling and the way we're playing together as a group. That team thing is very important."
It is, especially on a team such as Calgary that tends to rely on team captain Jarome Iginla and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. Uncharacteristically, Kiprusoff had some rocky moments in the midst of the surge, but they got decent relief netminding from Henrik Karlsson for a change. In the past two games, he's been razor sharp again.
Iginla has worked his way back into the top 20 in scoring, and even the much maligned Olli Jokinen has contributed, with 11 points in his past 13 games. Iginla qualified for all-star participation, but had a good reason not to go, his wish to spend time with an ailing grandmother in St. Albert, Alta. Good for him, for keeping his priorities straight, and for understanding that family comes first.
The only difficult part for Iginla will be forging ahead without Conroy, a close friend, who will be counting down the days until his NHL career is officially over. For the rest of the Flames, the past month played out as an encouraging new beginning, one that cannot go up in a puff of smoke when this weekend's mini-vacation ends and they go back to work for the home stretch.