Just six years ago Calgarians scooped up more than 17,000 season tickets to watch their Flames play in the Saddledome.
Those numbers dwindled to 9,000 earlier this year -- a situation that saw Flames governor Harley Hotchkiss tearfully warn that the team will be sold unless fans rally behind it with their wallets by the end of June.
With a booming economy, more than 90 corporate head offices and citizens known for their exuberant civic boosterism, what's the problem? Why the need for such a hard sell?
"There has been what I would call some apathy develop here," Hotchkiss says. "There is some dissatisfaction with the whole field of professional sports, that we don't have our act together."
Part of the problem is the entertainment value of the Flames, a team that won the Stanley Cup in 1989 but hasn't made it to the playoffs in the past four years.
Then there are the financial problems endemic to all Canadian small-market NHL teams such as the difficulty of paying even run-of-the-mill players million-dollar contracts in U.S. funds or holding on to marquee stars.
The Ottawa Senators weathered a similar do-or-die storm last February, and a key part of their success was corporations buying more season tickets.
While it is very daunting to compete with teams from larger U.S. cities, it can be successfully done if the community is on side and companies are ready to play, says Senators president Roy Mlakar.
"The passion has to come from the people, but the key to going over the top is your corporations," he says.
"Hockey is part of the culture of our life and the business breeds significant benefits to the corporations. If the corporations aren't going to buy into that you will lose your team to the United States for sure."
The corporate link is a key part of the Flames' survival strategy. The club has set a goal of persuading Calgary boardrooms to buy 2,000 new season tickets in their drive to reach the overall goal of 14,000 subscribers by June 30.
Tim Hamilton of the executive search firm Caldwell Partners Inc., is spearheading a campaign to approach the CEO's of 400 of the city's largest companies to buck up.
He said their selling point is the contribution the Flames make to the city's economy and the community.
"We are appealing to civic pride," he says. "This is a competitive city and we like to see ourselves on the world stage."
Hamilton acknowledges the Flames performance on the ice over the past few seasons has probably led companies to not buy season tickets or reduce the number of tickets they hold.
That being said, Hamilton says Calgary has taken the team for granted and hasn't thought much about what it means to have an NHL team -- or to lose one.
"We are not a Winnipeg, we are not a Quebec City," he says. "I don't think there is a single person in this city who would like to see Alberta have only one NHL franchise and it is not going to be in Calgary."
Jim Gray, chairman of the Calgary-based oil firm Canadian Hunter, says the Flames are facing a crisis but the stark possibility of losing the team may wake people up because of the blow the city's image would take.
"This ticket sale drive is a crisis," Gray says. "This focuses our attention . . . It has taken this to drive it into people's consciousness."
Calgarians have shown they can get behind a beleaguered sports team.
The Calgary Stampeders have already sold more than 22,000 season tickets for the upcoming Canadian Football League season -- a far cry from the 8,000 ticket holders they had just ten years ago.
And there are signs the Flames campaign -- including noisy public rallies -- will turn things around.
So far more than 10,100 season tickets have been sold or renewed since the FlamesForever campaign was announced last month.
Hotchkiss, one the team's nine owners, says he is cautiously optimistic.
"I don't want to minimize what we have left to do . . . we still have some big hurdles to get over," says Hotchkiss. "I think we are going to get there."
By John Cotter