Finally, intensity rises in the West

Updated: May 16, 2004, 1:19 AM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

CALGARY, Alberta -- San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson is one cool customer. Cooler than Frank and Dean and Sammy at the Sands in the '60s. He wears those custom-cut suits as if poured into them. Armani himself couldn't pick a better tie as a complement. The tan provides just the right finish. Not overdone or too obvious, of course. Just, well ... right.

Wilson -- unlike others in his business -- is someone who speaks intelligently, in measured tones, and doesn't come across as either condescending or spoiling for an argument every time someone toting a notepad or a TV camera suddenly appears in front of him.

He's thoughtful, perceptive and accommodating. Very un-hockey-like.

Thursday night, uncharacteristically, he snapped.

And that's only the start.

The first two games of this San Jose-Calgary Flames Western Conference final may have provided us with winners and losers, goals and assists, momentum swings and turning points. What they fundamentally lacked, however, was a sense of bitter occasion, the sort of deep, gnawing dislike that festers and grows as a conference final pushes ever onward, as nerves fray, feuds intensify and the fork in the road to either glory or oblivion begins to draw nearer.

Well, the series started in earnest Thursday at the Pengrowth Saddledome.

The Sharks won in style, 3-0, to pull back into contention. Sticks inched up. Elbows strayed higher. Jonathan Cheechoo started getting under Jarome Iginla's skin. Ville Nieminen had all the Sharks gritting their teeth, grinding them down to the gums in refusing to jump at his infuriating bait. At one point, Scott Thornton of San Jose knelt down over a fallen Chris Clark and rained punches down on him. No penalty call.

And those were merely the hors d'oeuvres. The main course wasn't served until the final minute.

The end-of-Game-3 incident revolved around what the Flames considered a deliberate piece of rub-your-nose-in-it hot-dogging by Alexander Korolyuk on his empty-net goal. Instead of just firing the puck on net, Korolyuk pulled up, took a look and then whipped in a wrist shot (Korolyuk later said he was endeavoring to set up struggling linemate Patrick Marleau, a perfectly plausible explanation if you check the replays).

Whatever. The disgruntled Flames were definitely not amused. Iginla bumped Korolyuk menacingly. Then Chris Simon, scouting around for trouble, paired off with a game but massively overmatched Mike Rathje and started using the big defenseman's head as a speed bag.

Up in the press box, Wilson sprang to his feet and chucked a chair. The ice was stupidly littered with debris. A few Sharks officials had to send suits to the hotel dry cleaner after having them soaked with beer. Down at event level, Sharks coach Ron Wilson quickly scrambled up on his soap box and deemed the episode "a black eye for hockey."

Game on!

"It's not a black eye for hockey," rebutted Flames' defenseman Andrew Ference a day later. "That is hockey. That's the sport. One of the things we've done is if we do lose, we lose with a fight. That doesn't mean going out and being stupid, that means through the course of the game you don't just keel over and play dead. You go down swinging.

"If you want sport without emotion ... go play pool."

If they did, good chance they'd be brandishing those custom-made cues like machetes or whizzing the brightly colored balls past each other's noggins. Doug Wilson had, naturally, calmed down some 12 hours after the incident, but his take on what happened, and what didn't, hadn't changed any.

"What infuriated me," he explained, "was that the linesman did not do his job. Chris Simon is one of the top heavyweights in the league, and he paired himself off against a non-fighter. That should not be allowed to happen.

"Those kinds of situations are when people get hurt. Mike Rathje may be a big guy, but he's not a fighter. He's a very good hockey player. He's important to our team. This series could be lost with an injury to a key player like that. Heavyweights in this era are big men, capable of doing a lot of damage to someone in a fight.

"The linesman should have been in there immediately. And yet the fight -- if that's what you want to call it -- was allowed to go on. That's the linesman's job to diffuse.

"If my conduct is inappropriate, I'll be the first to apologize.

"But I will never apologize for caring about my players. When I do, that's the time for me to step down from this job."

The importance of Game 4 couldn't be lost on even the dimmest bulb. Win, and the Sharks have whittled the series to a best-of-three, with two of those games at HP Pavilion, where they're overdue. Lose, and the underdog, overachieving, hard-to-explain Flames will be one win from becoming the first Canadian franchise to reach the final since the Vancouver Canucks a decade ago. Beating Calgary's superb goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff three games in a row would be, frankly, just this side of impossible.

So there's everything to play for this afternoon on the western Canadian plains.

The improbable Flames have been a product of the fusion between unshakable self-belief and closely monitored frenzy these past five weeks. Their ability to push the emotional level ever higher is one of the main reasons they're still alive, down to the frozen four. Their captain is calling for another notch to be located, and mined.

"We've got to be harder on their top players," said Iginla bluntly. "We've got to be more physical than we were in the last game. We're a team that like to play close to that edge.

"I didn't think we were there [Thursday].

"They don't have to be fans of ours, and we don't have to be fans of theirs. Naturally, it grows throughout the series. Hockey is an emotional game, and the playoffs are all about desire, about wanting it.

"If anything, we've got to raise our emotions even more."

In the view of Ron Wilson, that the series took awhile to heat up should come as no real surprise, not considering the two teams involved.

"We kind of have to march along here, stick our toe in the pool to see if it's cold," said the ever-quotable Sharks' coach. "'Can I dive in? What are we jumping into?'

"I can say 'Be careful, the water's really cold. It's going to be a shock when you jump in.'

"The guys are learning 'Geez, this water is cold. When we get in there, we've got to paddle really fast to stay warm.' What you're seeing here is two very young teams."

And two very motivated, highly focused, increasingly bitter teams. There's no doubting now that this is a conference final. The conclusion to Game 3 validated that.

"Well, I think the Calgary Flames are bad losers," said Niemenen proudly.

While virtually all of the participants polled insisted there would be no carryover (particularly with a two-day window between games) from the tomfoolery of Thursday evening, the clasp on Pandora's box has been flung open. The raw animosity is out there, in plain view.

And, as Shakespeare, a pretty fair observer of the human condition, once wrote: What's past is prologue.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE