Lanny’s back! Flames legend receives stirring ovation after health scare

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The highlight-of-the-night came early — with 53 minutes of game action remaining — and wasn’t going to be topped.

Sure, there were some sprawling saves from Dustin Wolf, a milestone marker for Mikael Backlund and gorgeous assists by Blake Coleman and Jonathan Huberdeau, but nothing compared to a goosebumps-worthy moment at Saturday’s first TV timeout, when the Calgary Flames’ faithful greeted franchise icon Lanny McDonald with a standing ovation.

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It was McDonald’s first appearance in the Saddledome since a cardiac event in early February. The Hockey Hall-of-Famer was in hospital for two weeks, including his 71st birthday.

“It was scary what happened to him,” Huberdeau said after a 5-2 victory over the visiting Montreal Canadiens. ”And it was good to see him back, smiling, and to be in the building with us.”

When McDonald was introduced at that first commercial break, there were 19,000 smiles in the rink.

That includes 20-some on the home bench.

As the crowd roared, McDonald waved and offered an enthusiastic thumbs-up. It was a stirring scene.

“He’s an absolute legend and an absolute great guy and a huge part of this community,” said Flames defenceman MacKenzie Weegar — a force against the Habs, with three assists — during an in-house intermission interview. “We’re very happy to see him back. He’s a fighter, so we knew that he’d be back in no time, and that got us going for sure.”

“It was a cool thing,” echoed Flames head coach Ryan Huska. “I normally don’t notice those things on the bench. But that one, I did. He’s been a guy that has travelled with us on some of our Dads’ Trips. He’s been like … I don’t want to say this, he’ll get mad at me … a grandpa to a lot of the guys. Like, they love having him around.

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“Even the day after all the stuff went on, he was texting me back-and-forth. He’s just such a great person to have around. He means so much to this city and organization and it was really nice to see him back in here tonight and it was even better to see the type of emotion that the crowd had for him, as well.”

Sure was.

It was ’80s Night at the Saddledome, a perfect excuse to play a few oldies over the speaker system and to pay tribute to the team that raised Calgary’s lone Stanley Cup banner.

McDonald, a co-captain for the 1988-89 Flames, watched from a suite with a half-dozen of his buddies from that championship crew — Tim Hunter, Jamie Macoun, Dana Murzyn, Joel Otto, Colin Patterson and Mike Vernon.

“I feel great actually,” McDonald said on the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast. “I’m back up to walking seven or eight kilometres a day and ready to cheer on the team.”

Calgary flames vs. Montreal Canadiens
Calgary Flames forward Nazem Kadri scores on Montreal Canadiens goalie Cayden Primeau at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Saturday, March 16, 2024. Photo by Larry MacDougal /The Canadian Press

On this night, there was plenty to cheer about — goals from Backlund (x2), Martin Pospisil, Nazem Kadri and Daniil Miromanov, a 36-save show-off from Wolf and maybe even a sliver of hope that they shouldn’t be written off in the wildcard race. After back-to-back victories, both with Wolf between the pipes, the Flames are suddenly just six points out.

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But the loudest cheer was reserved for a familiar face who showed up to root for his favourite team. His. No. 9 hangs from the rafters, but he might now be their No. 1 fan.

Thirty-five years after that Stanley Cup parade, McDonald remains as beloved a local as anybody who has ever called this city home, not only because he filled the net during his playing heyday but because he’s long been a difference-maker for countless charitable causes and community initiatives. When Beesley introduced him Saturday as “the one, the only,” there was no dispute.

While Huberdeau seems to have found his offensive groove, averaging close to a point-per-game since the calendar flipped to 2024 and setting up both Pospisil and Kadri for tap-ins against the Habs, he revealed during his post-game media scrum that when it seemed he couldn’t buy a goal or an assist, he could always count on an encouraging note from McDonald.

“With all the struggles since I got here, he was the one that reaching out to me,” Huberdeau said. “A lot of nice texts, trying to always be positive with me, a couple chats. That means a lot.”

You can bet that Saturday’s ovation meant a lot to Lanny.

“I was super excited to see him back in the building,” said Backlund, who joined Lanny — and a bunch of other marquee names — as only the 11th player to score 200 goals on behalf of the Flames’ franchise. “I know how much he means for this city and for this organization.”

“He’s been a good friend, I think, to all of us,” Huska added. “Which is the coolest part.”

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