One victory from winning this city's first Stanley Cup in 15 years, the Calgary Flames refused to get ahead of themselves Friday, about 24 hours before Game 6 of their Stanley Cup finals series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"We have kept a very even keel about it," said defenseman Andrew Ference at the Pengrowth Saddledome, moments before hopping on his Harley-Davidson and riding away.
Staying focused, Ference admitted, isn't easy for the Flames, who entered the playoffs buoyed by the hopes of this city and now find themselves playing for the pride of an entire country.
Before Ference got out of the players' parking lot, at least two dozen fans sprang to their feet and began chasing after his motorcycle. He stopped and patiently signed an autograph for every one. Some of the diehards, like 26-year-old Richard Vallance, had been stationed there for hours, in the middle of a workday.
"You have to understand: This is Canada's game," Vallance said. "Hockey is to us what baseball is to Americans."
Calgary revolves around the Flames these days. Banners bearing the words, "Go Flames Go!" hang in store windows. Flames flags fly from car windows in downtown. Bank tellers, bellhops and cab drivers are wearing Flames jerseys, most of them adorned with the name and number of the Calgary's beloved captain, Jarome Iginla.
Flames fanaticism is everywhere, especially on 17th Avenue in downtown Calgary, where rowdy revelers have gathered after playoff games, some 50,000 strong, according to police estimates. The sea of red on the two-lane road lined with restaurants and bars is so pronounced, it's known simply as the "Red Mile." In the wee hours, the party's tone can turn raunchy, with the atmosphere similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
"People around here have been waiting so long for this," said 31-year-old Calgary native David Torres.
Said Roberto Portillo, 40, a season ticket holder: "Even Edmonton [Oilers] fans are behind the Flames. The whole of Alberta and Canada wants to see the Flames win."
"They are just a very easy team to like," said Darren Zakowsky, 25.
Fans relish the Flames' us-against-the-world role that Calgary Coach Darryl Sutter further embraced this week when he questioned the NHL's reasons for suspending Ville Nieminen for an illegal hit on Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier. Sutter hinted that the league was against the Flames, saying, "We're the little team that wasn't supposed to be here, and a lot of people don't want us to be here and to make sure that we're not successful." Sutter has stood behind the remarks.
"What makes this run special is we're a small market, small payroll team," Vallance said. "I really hope this proves to other teams that spending $74 million can't buy you a Stanley Cup."
Torres and Portillo were among the more than 17,000 fans who packed the Saddledome on Thursday to watch the Flames' Game 5 victory in Tampa live on six big screen televisions. Hundreds of hand-written notes from offices and schools in all 10 provinces line the walls near the Flames' dressing room. The players don't have go to 17th Avenue to feel the love. But some of them do anyway.
"It's exciting," said rugged winger Shean Donovan, who missed much of the third period of Game 5 because of a leg injury but hopes to play Saturday. "It's just makes you feel proud to be a Calgary Flame. And the city, they know how to party."
In the past 33 years, only one team has taken a 3-2 series lead in the finals and failed to win. (Colorado rallied to knock off New Jersey in 2001).
"The pressure is on them," Lightning Coach John Tortorella said. "You have all of Canada waiting there. The cup is in the building. They're supposed to win. There's no pressure on Tampa."
Cup Note: Referee Kerry Fraser was pulled Friday from his Game 6 assignment after having objects thrown at him and being subject to derisive chants during Game 4. Bill McCreary and Stephen Walkom -- the same officials from Calgary's Game 5 victory at Tampa Bay -- will be the referees.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.