After it was over, after a largely meaningless exhibition hockey game played out between two split squads of rebuilding NHL teams, the Calgary Flames invited all of their special guests to come down to ice level Saturday night. Thousands of them did – all workers who'd spent the previous 2 1/2 months rebuilding the Scotiabank Saddledome, which was badly damaged in last June's floods. They streamed on the ice for a photo opportunity with the local heroes, the sort of picture teams take to celebrate a championship.
On some human level, that's precisely what unfolded here.
Back on a Friday in late June, the rising waters of the Elbow River left the first eight rows of the Saddledome under water. Everything on the event floor was lost; little could be salvaged, which in an odd way, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The mantra of the reconstruction project was 'if in doubt, throw it out.' And so, some 69 days after Pierre Champness, the project superintendent for the CANA construction company, first inspected the damage, he turned the building back over to the Flames.
Against long odds, the work – of getting the building functional – was actually completed with a week to spare. Two concerts by the Eagles kicked things off. On Friday afternoon, the WHL's Calgary Hitmen tested the new ice. On Saturday morning, the Flames and the visiting Edmonton Oilers took a turn on the ice – and then at night, it was Game On. They played 60 minutes, the Oilers won 3-2, but the real story was not the result, but the process of getting to this point – the ability to play an NHL game so soon after the flood.
Calgary and Edmonton may have a fierce rivalry when it comes to all matters relating to hockey, but on Saturday, the players on both teams echoed a common theme when it came to the Saddledome rebuild.
"Kudos to the men and women who did it," said Oilers' forward Jordan Eberle, who lives in Calgary in the off-season and happened to be in town when the flood occurred.
"I saw the devastation and to be honest, I didn't think this would be up and running this soon. It was just surreal. I mean, you see stuff like that on TV, but it doesn't really hit home until it happens right in your own backyard.
"I think the biggest thing for me was just to see how Calgary responded. There were so many positives. Everybody was volunteering. That's all it was about – helping people get back in their homes and finding homes for people. It was amazing to see the community come together the way it did."
Defenceman Mark Giordano is the longest serving Flames' player after an off-season in which there were departures of mainstays Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Tanguay and others.
"It's amazing how quickly they finished everything up," said Giordano, who'd been in the building about 10 days earlier to monitor the progress of the reconstruction. "I got my first taste of it and it was like, 'Wow, I can't believe it's ready.' It was ready to go. To see the picture of the water when it was right up to the suites and to know that it came from that to this," he said, motioning to the team's spanking new dressing room, "it's pretty impressive."
One of the flood volunteers happened to be Flames' rookie Corban Knight, from nearby High River, Alta., whose family home was badly damaged in the flood. Knight was in the lineup against the Oilers for the first game back, as was veteran Matt Stajan, who – in his work with the NHL Players' Association – helped deliver new hockey equipment to youth players in High River who had their old stuff washed away.
Knight acknowledged that his family "got hit pretty hard, but it's something the whole town and southern Alberta has kind of rallied around. It's pretty cool to see how everyone's come together and supported us."
Knight has been in and out of the Saddledome all of his young life and says: "There's not a whole lot different here. It's amazing what a great job they did in such a short period of time. It doesn't really feel as if anything really happened in here. Pretty impressive."
For most of the first week of training camp, coach Bob Hartley used the Saddledome reconstruction as a metaphor for the larger challenges facing the Flames' organization as a whole.
Physically, the Saddledome returned to working order in record time. Can the rebuilding hockey team learn a lesson from that fast-tracked reconstruct?
"We can definitely use that," Giordano answered. "Bob's mentioned it a couple of times already. We have to take that workman-like attitude and carry it over to our game."
Hartley related a story Saturday morning about a conversation with Champness, who reportedly entered his office once the flood waters had receded and saw a motivational expression on his chalkboard that had survived intact.
"I have a saying, 'without courage, there is no hope,'" Hartley said. "When the water went down, that line was still on my whiteboard and he took a picture of it and he told the employees, 'that's where we're starting.' It's just unbelievable. If we can just match their intensity and will, our fans will be very pleased with us and we will have a great season."