Hockey

Flames' Stempniak back into the fire

After spending last season in the hockey wilderness of Phoenix, itinerant Calgary forward Lee Stempniak returns to a town where the passion for hockey burns hot, and where he hopes he's finally found a home.

Itinerant forward returns to town where hockey passion burns hot

Newly acquired Calgary forward Lee Stempniak, centre, is back in a hockey-mad town after spending last season in Phoenix. (Dale MacMillan/Getty Images)

This is the first installment in a series of profiles on the "new guys in town" with the seven Canadian-based clubs as CBCSports.ca previews the 2011-12 NHL season.

Talking to Lee Stempniak, you get the feeling the guy could fit in anywhere.

It's a trait that's served the affable Western New Yorker well during an itinerant NHL career that's taken him to four clubs in six years — from St. Louis to Toronto to Phoenix and now Calgary after the Flames acquired him in an August trade with the Coyotes.

The 28-year-old forward seems like the kind of person who, to paraphrase Sloan, sees the good in everything. Example: most folks outside Arizona regard Phoenix as a hockey wasteland, but Stempniak "really enjoyed my time there" as part of a team that averaged 93 points over the last two seasons.

"It was the right fit for me," Stempniak said by phone last week after finishing an off-ice workout at Flames training camp. "We won a lot and it was really a team in every sense of the word. We played four lines and everybody chipped in."

"There's really passionate fans there, it's just not as big a number. But when we were winning and we were going down the stretch in the playoff push, the arena was rocking and those were great crowds."

Good times, bad times

Lee Stempniak on his best moment vs. the Flames: "My [rookie] year in St. Louis, right around the trade deadline, I got called up after they traded Doug Weight. That night [Jan. 30, 2006] I scored a goal against the Flames and then scored the shootout winning goal. It was a big game that was really important in my development. Pretty memorable to beat Miikka Kiprusoff in a shootout and win the game for your team."

And his worst: "I was on the ice when Jarome Iginla scored the goal to break the Flames' all-time goal-scoring record [in March 2008]. You never want to be a part of history on the opposite side like that."

Stempniak's talent for adapting is being tested again as he shifts to a decidedly more hockey-mad town in Calgary. It's a move he made in reverse at the trade deadline in 2010 after Phoenix acquired him from Toronto, where he learned a few things about playing under pressure in the self-styled Hockey Capital Of The World.

"[The attention] certainly caught me off guard when I was traded to Toronto," Stempniak said. "There was a couple of reporters and camera crews waiting for me at the airport when I got off the plane, and it sort of caught me by surprise."

"At the same time, I put a lot of pressure on myself and set high expectations for myself, so it's not like I have to worry about external pressure from media or fans."

Flames supporters may need time to warm to Stempniak, who was acquired at the cost of popular vet Daymond Langkow, a scrappy two-time 30-goal scorer who missed nearly all of last season because of a neck injury.

With Langkow turning 35, Stempniak represented a younger, cheaper option for salary-cap squeezed Calgary GM Jay Feaster, who also prized Stempniak for his ability to play either wing and contribute on both special teams units.

A sometimes streaky scorer who potted a career-high 28 goals in the season he split between the Leafs and Coyotes before dipping to 19 last year, Stempniak figures the best way to fit in his new surroundings is to avoid trying to replace Langkow, and just be himself.

"I don't look at it as you have to go in and fill his shoes or do what he did," said Stempniak. "The one thing I've learned going from team to team is you need to play your game and do the things that make you successful as an individual, and then that translates into helping the team and fitting in and being a big contributor on the team."

Not surprisingly given his personality, Stempniak is already comfortable with his new teammates.

"I've really liked everyone," he said. "It seems like a tight-knit team and everyone gets along well.

"I think it's a really talented team, and the way they finished last year [Calgary went 17-8-6 from Feb. 1 on, but still missed the playoffs], there's a lot to build on."

He's done well with all the bouncing around, but Stempniak hopes to make a more permanent home in Calgary. He's always liked the city, the Saddledome, and the atmosphere around town he experienced as a visiting player. He sounds genuinely excited about his latest fresh start.

"To be in a city where hockey is such a big part of the fabric of the city and there's so much passion from the fans, it's awesome," he said. "There's always a buzz in the city when the Flames are playing. You can't ask for anything more as a player."

"Hopefully it works out well here in Calgary and we can work out a contract to stay, because it's a great city."