CALGARY, Alberta -- It happened overnight. Literally.
Martin Gelinas' series-winning overtime goal against Vancouver in Round 1 instantly transformed Calgary from a town of skeptical hockey fans into a full-bore puck nuthouse. Flames fans had only hoped to see their team make the playoffs for the first time in seven years. The first series win in 15 seasons? That tipped the city into a tizzy.
Immediately after the OT win, fans flooded the team Web site, calgaryflames.com. A few thousand hits is a good day for the site, but that night brought 250,000 page views. Before dawn, the site's server crashed.
Meanwhile, giddy Calgarians were flooding downtown's 17th Avenue to celebrate. A relatively tame collection of shouters and drinkers morphed into a Canadian Mardi Gras. By the next series against Detroit, fans ran out to 17th after every win. Some men raised tin-foil Stanley Cups, and some women raised their red jerseys. (One entrepreneur started a site devoted to Flames girls gone wild, and got enough traffic to begin charging for advertising.) The non-descript roadway became "The Red Mile" -- a mecca for postgame partying.
The Flames' plane landed after 2 a.m., and fans were waiting at the airport. Within an hour, Flames flagship station FAN960 got a call from "Craig in his car." It was Craig Conroy, stunned by the swelling frenzy. He said the game-tying goal at the end of that night's third period was "like somebody kicked me in the (groin)." Then he proceeded to talk about the feeling of a playoff series win while show host Rob Kerr and hundreds of shocked radiogoers sat breathlessly listening.
Conroy has called Kerr's postgame show, "Overtime," after every series victory. (After one caller reported he was on the way to San Jose without tickets, Conroy called in to offer two comps at the Shark Tank.) "Overtime" lasted only 15 minutes back in November, but on this night it would go on toward the early Alberta dawn. After Game 5 of the Detroit series, Kerr took calls for five-and-a-half hours without commercial interruption. When the Flames clinched a berth in the conference finals, Kerr stayed on the air until 5:15 a.m.
Understand, this city has changed dramatically since the Flames last won a playoff series and the Stanley Cup in '89. The population has doubled to nearly one million. Telecom was not even a widely-known word back when Lanny McDonald lifted the Cup; now it's a leading industry.
And so a hockey fanbase known more as a reserved wine-and-cheese crowd compared to blue-collar Edmonton to the north has become younger and livelier. For so many who have come from elsewhere -- Calgary has a huge percentage of dual citizens -- this is a first taste of hockey bliss. And a first taste of real community.
"For the first time," says Kerr, "everybody's talking as a Calgarian."
The feeling is growing, even as the Flames lost Game 2 Thursday night. The first Krispy Kreme store to hit Calgary dropped 1,200 free donuts on Schanks bar and restaurant on MacLeod Trail Thursday night to celebrate Game 2. By evening's end, more than 800 people had come and gone -- standing and facing the big screen for the Canadian anthem -- and only one half-full box of donuts remained.
The red car flags, at $14.95 a pop, have sold out virtually everywhere. Deerfoot Trail, one of the city's main arteries, had more cars with flags Thursday night than a Secret Service entourage. The cars and the flags lined up outside the Saddledome, where Game 2 played on four oversized screens for free. For Game 1, 6,000 fans showed up with non-perishables to give to charity.
Thursday night sold out, bringing more than 20,000. Some fans even spilled onto the team benches. The Saddledome staff, overwhelmed, had to turn more than a thousand people away from a building without a game. No one left early, even when the game was out of reach -- though some frustrated fans threw soup cans. (Hey, it's still a "donation.") This is a place formerly known as "The Library" and "The Silentdome."
And now, as the Stanley Cup finals come to Calgary, bedlam. One liquor store is advertising a discount to anyone who stumbles in wearing a Flames jersey. The transit system has put flaming C's on the front of every train. Kerr and his buds at The FAN are offering two tickets to Game 3 Saturday for the most generous and creative bidder.
So what would Calgarians give to see just one Finals game? How about 19 dozen homemade raisin tarts? Free pizza for life? An all-expenses-paid round of golf at Banff Springs? A full day tooling around a speedway in a racecar? An Impala? A 2003 Pontiac Sunfire? A walk-on role in a movie? Three weeks in the Cayman Islands?
And countless wives.
Kerr, like everyone else here, is bewildered. This is a guy who started out as a forest ranger in Saskatchewan.
"Once I had a fire," he says, "and I'd say it was half the size of Calgary."
Impressive. But this conflagration is twice the size, and the Flames won't stop spreading.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org