Cult Tribute: The Battle of Alberta
Fun fact; today is my birthday. Yes another year has gone by and I now find myself closer to the great abyss that awaits oh my goodness why am I getting so dark right now? This is what happens when you’re a 27 year old writer who still has no idea how to start his columns.
Alas today is indeed my birthday and I felt this deserved a special column. So with that in mind I decided to go a different direction today and write about something I really wish to write more about; hockey. I love hockey; it’s the only sport I ever played as a kid and has continued to be a great source of entertainment throughout the years, no matter how many times Gary Bettman has tried to ruin it for me by moving my beloved Whalers or treating the Canadian teams like they’re the cold sore on the lips of the NHL. Thus, I thought it be a great idea to spend my birthday talking about my favorite rivalry of the NHL and a rivalry that oddly enough will be renewed tomorrow night on April 2nd. It’s a rivalry between two teams steeped in tradition, separated by only a couple hours drive and a whole lot of bad blood, a rivalry that at one point defined not just the NHL but hockey itself. So let’s not waste any time. Friends, family, fans, whoever is reading this, I give you a tribute to one of my favorite sports rivalries and my favorite hockey rivalry, the Calgary Flames vs. the Edmonton Oilers; or as it’s better known as, the Battle of Alberta.
What You Already Know (American Edition)
For you American hockey fans out there, the only thing you know about the Battle of Alberta is that it’s the name used to describe the rivalry between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, teams that are most known for being pretty putrid (cue all the comments about the Oilers having so many number one draft picks in a row). For Canadians, well, that’s why we have the other section of this column. It’s basically two What You Already Know sections; what can I say, I break new ground every day. Hey that rhymed!
What You Already Know (Canadian Edition)
Aside from maybe the Battle of Ontario and the Montreal Canadiens vs. the dastardly Boston Bruins (and that’s from a New Englander), the Battle of Alberta is the fiercest rivalry Canada offer in the NHL. And yet it’s not that old. Due to the NHL being a barren wasteland for many years during the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s the NHL didn’t field many Canadian teams, Edmonton and Calgary included. In fact, the Oilers aren’t even an original NHL team; they instead hailed from the World Hockey Association, where they played from 1972 to 1979 before joining the NHL alongside the Hartford Whalers, Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques (as those other three sadly relocated, the Oilers are the only WHA team still active today). The Flames meanwhile were originally brought into the NHL as the Atlanta Flames, playing in Georgia for eight years before poor ownership and a lack of interest led them to Calgary in the 1980s (I know, I can’t believe Atlanta had trouble supporting hockey either. IT’S JUST UNHEARD OF!). You talk about the stars aligning; where else can you find a situation where two rival cities suddenly each get hockey teams in the span of a year? I’ll let M. Night Shyamalan sum this one up for you.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Oilers and Flames quickly became one of the most heated rivalries. What did surprise people is how quickly both squads became successful. The Oilers, thanks to GM/Coach Glen Sather, found themselves with a gold mine of talent in Gretzky, Mark Messier, Grant Furh, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe and countless others. Not to be outdone, Flames GM Cliff Fletcher quickly put together his own super squad, a mixture of Canadian, American and foreign players that included the legendary Lanny MacDonald, Al MacInnis, Joel Otto, Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Suter, and local boy Mike Vernon (superstar veteran Dan Gilmour and phenom Theo Fleury would eventually join the Flames as well). The overload of talent from both teams instantly made them elite and from 1983 to 1990, the Flames and Oilers represented the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals, winning a total of six Stanley Cups combined (five for the Oilers and one for the Flames). That success alone would be enough to make any rivalry significant; now imagine what it was like when the Flames and Oilers met six times in the postseason during the course of that stretch (with Edmonton winning five of six). Remember when the Northeastern part of the United States lost their minds when the Red Sox and Yankees battled in the postseason two years in a row? The Flames and Oilers in the 80s were like that, only, in the words of Derek Zoolander, three times bigger than that. It was so heated that the rivalry has still managed to run hot in the years since, even though the Flames and Oilers success has declined.
Now you would expect, based on how much Edmonton won against Calgary in the postseason during that stretch, that the Oilers would be well ahead of the Flames as far as all time record goes. Not so fast my friend! As it turns out, the Flames have proven to be the superior side overall (at least in the regular season), winning 127 of the whopping 258 Battle of Alberta matchups. It’s not a huge gap however; Edmonton has won 121 of the matches, while another 19 have ended up ties, back when the NHL preferred to kiss their sister as opposed to letting them handle it with shootouts and three on three hockey. How did this come to be? While the Oilers were the superior team in the 80s during each squads boom period (the Oilers held a 51-33-11 record over the Flames during that span), Calgary has won every other decade, especially the one we’re currently in where they’ve shellacked Edmonton 27-9. Dominance isn’t something new to this rivalry; as stated earlier the Oilers dominated the 80s and at times beat the Flames six to seven times during a season. But it was never entirely one sided until the 2009-10 season, when the Flames swept the season series between the two sides six games to none. That’s right; each team had at least gotten one win or tie against the other in every other season before 2009-10. The Flames have now done it twice, including last year where they went 5-0 against the Oilers.
2009-10 wasn’t the only first Calgary and Edmonton had with each other. Even in the cases of the most heated of rivalries, it isn’t uncommon for players to switch sides or the squads to even do business with one another (Celtic and Rangers have had their share of players switch clubs and the Yankees and Red Sox seemingly try to poach players from each side all the time). That’s not the case in the Battle of Alberta. For thirty years, the Flames and Oilers never once completed a trade with one another. Not one time. It took until the aforementioned 2009-10 season for that to end as well, when the Oilers sent defenseman Steve Staois to the Flames in exchange forward Aaron Johnson and a 2011 third round pick. That’s the historic trade that got these two rivals to finally negotiate and it frankly wasn’t a big deal in the slightest; both Staois and Johnson were out of the league within three years (Staois retired, Johnson went down to the AHL) and that third round pick of the oilers (one Travis Ewanyk) has yet to make the NHL. In short, this wasn’t Gretzky for Vernon or MacDonald for Messier. My goodness, can you imagine the first one? Forget about the reaction Edmonton had to Gretzky being shipped to LA; if they had traded him to Calgary the entire city would’ve burned Peter Pocklington for real. The reaction Vancouver had from losing to Boston would’ve seemed like a friendly tussle in comparison!
Would you believe that the best games between the Flames and Oilers would come from their final (thus far) playoff series together? In 1991, with both teams at the end of their runs of excellence, Edmonton and Calgary squared off in the first round of the playoffs in a series that saw all but one game decided by two goals or less. But the most memorable moments came in Games 6 and 7. In Game 6 at home, the Oilers took an early 1-0 lead and looked to have closed the series out. Instead, a Paul Ranheim goal tied the game at one and led to an all game display of masterful goaltending by both Vernon and Furh. That is until overtime, when Fleury burst into the Edmonton zone and snuck the puck past Furh to force Game 7. Of course no one remembers this because Fleury, in a moment of happiness Pee Wee Herman hasn’t even experienced, slid all the way to the other end of the ice in celebration. Now that’s speed right there!
Somehow Game 7, in Calgary, turned out to be even wilder. The Flames seemingly put the series away with three straight goals to open the game, only to watch the Oilers answer with four straight goals of their own to put Calgary on the brink. Naturally the Flames responded with a tying goal of their own from Ron Stern with a little more than two minutes left, sending the two teams to overtime again and their fans for every available oxygen tank. There Esa Tikkaten finally put it away with his third goal of the game, sending the Oilers to the second round. Ladies and gentlemen I have seen five overtime games, I witnessed the glorious run of Whalers/Flames/Ducks great Jean-Sébastien Giguère; I’ve even seen a grown man satisfy a camel (just kidding. Or am I?). The Battle of Alberta’s final playoff series ending on a combined nine goals, a hat trick and Mark Messier skating off with the sort of exhausted happiness you only see in Rocky II? There’s nothing like that.
NBC Sports Network likes to advertise their Wednesday night block of hockey games as Rivalry Night, aka “The Night You Love to Hate”. How can it truly be that if the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers have never had a game broadcast on that night? While I won’t claim that the Battle of Alberta is what it once was, it’s still one of the three most heated rivalries in the NHL and was the premiere rivalry for the league back in the 80s. In fact, dare I say the Battle of Alberta from 1980-1991 was the greatest rivalry in all of sports? Your mileage may vary, but the talent, the atmosphere, the stakes, the championships and the fact that these two teams represented the Western Conference for seven straight years (let me emphasize again; SEVEN STRAIGHT YEARS!) has to count for something. My goodness, this rivalry is so rich and loaded with great players that I’m only now mentioning Jarome Iginla, the Flames legend who actually grew up in Edmonton and one of the best players to ever suit up for this rivalry. I don’t know if we’ll ever see anything like that in the NHL again. What I do know is we’ll definitely see the Battle of Alberta be as great as it once was again and likely sooner than you think. Yes the Oilers are still struggling and yes the Flames have taken a step back after a wonderful Cinderella run just a year ago. But there’s young talent all over both of those teams, from Sean Monahan to Sam Bennett to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to Taylor Hall to Dougie Hamilton to Gretzky Jr. himself Connor McDavid. It won’t be much longer before these two teams are having meaningful games once more, and hockey is going to be a much better place when that happens.
That does it guys and gals! I’m off to celebrate the birthday with some FIFA 16 and a Pepsi or two. Till next time, make sure to check out the Battle of Alberta game tomorrow and get a taste of what the next ten years of hockey will be like!