Oilers and Flames in Battle of Alberta: Bedlam on the Ice, Torn Loyalties Off It

ON THE ROAD BETWEEN CALGARY AND EDMONTON, Alta. — A white sedan drove down a quiet road in Gasoline Alley, a small hamlet along Highway 2, with two flags flapping in the Saturday breeze. One floated for the Edmonton Oilers hockey club and the other for the Calgary Flames, two of the sport’s fiercest rivals, flapping from the windows of the same car.

Red Deer is the geographic midpoint between Alberta’s two major cities – Edmonton to the north and Calgary to the south – and loyalties may be split ‘about 52-48 for the Oilers’, according to a server’s calculations. a local Tim Hortons donut store. For some families – and their cars – it can be more like 50-50.

Carl Dies, a structural engineer who grew up in northern Alberta passionately cheering on the Oilers, wasn’t surprised to hear about the car with divided loyalties while taking a break from a facility in indoor climbing in Gasoline Alley.

“I call Red Deer the fence,” he said. “When the Flames are doing well, it’s all red here. When the Oilers are good, it’s blue and orange.

Now they are both good, and those colors turn white again. For the first time in 31 years, the Alberta battle is re-engaged in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and provincial opponents rumble in a second-round encounter, brimming with heavy hitting, chatter, thundering arenas, of bragging rights and numerous goalscoring that defined hockey in the 1980s, when the Flames and Oilers played in four playoff series.

“The intensity is as high as it gets,” said Hall of Fame winger Lanny McDonald, who grew up on a farm in Hanna, Alta., east of Calgary, and played eight seasons with the flames. “It’s bragging rights in sports, politics, culture, north versus south, which side is better. We still think the South is better.

The two towns are vying over who has the best team, the juiciest steak, the row of trendy restaurants — even the top library. At the moment, the clock is tilting slightly towards Edmonton after the Oilers comfortably won Game 3 on Sunday, to take a 2-1 series lead.

After the game, Oilers fans took to the streets of Edmonton chanting ‘We want the Cup’, while some climbed atop a statue of Wayne Gretzky, waving flags as car horns honked for more than an hour afterwards. Only the third game of the second round and it was jumping. This is the Battle of Alberta.

For decades, before the Flames and Oilers even existed, Alberta sports competitions were contested by clubs and lower-level professional hockey teams, at local rodeos and through the Canadian Football League. .

But this is the Stanley Cup playoffs and this is Canada, where five-dollar bills depict children playing pond hockey, and where the Battle of Alberta marked the 80s with thrilling games and exuberant punches.

“On the ice, there was a lot of blood and sweat and tears in this rivalry,” said Hall of Fame forward Wayne Gretzky, a member of the dominant Oilers from 1979-88. an incredible desire to win on both sides.”

Gretzky led the Oilers to four Stanley Cups in the 1980s — and almost as satisfyingly won three playoff series against the Flames, beginning in 1983. Originally a member of the World Hockey Association, the Oilers of Edmonton joined the NHL in 1979.

They also carried the Alberta Oilers name for one season in 1972-73, but that was before the NHL came to Calgary. When the Flames moved from Atlanta in 1980, it was gone.

The rivalry was quite fierce in the regular season, but once the teams met in playoff games, they became furious, gripping and sometimes vicious. Even a superstar like Gretzky had to be very aware of the elbows and hips that could be thrown at him.

“That’s a big part of it, and you knew it was coming,” Gretzky said in a phone interview. “It’s a battle and it’s a war, but there’s huge respect on both sides.”

Gretzky scored an incredible 19 goals and assisted 27 other players in 23 playoff games against the Flames. McDonald scored 10 with 13 assists. The teams met four times in the playoffs between 1983 and 1988, and again in 1991, with Calgary’s only victory coming in 1986. In eight consecutive seasons through 1990, one of the two teams made it to the Stanley Cup final, with Calgary eventually. winner in 1989.

Both teams were so good that winning the Stanley Cup in that era required a trip to Alberta – and it wasn’t for the faint-hearted. McDonald said that in those days, if you were playing against a random team and saw one of their players in the hallways of the arena, you would smile, say hello, and maybe chat.

“But when we passed the Oilers in the hallway, we didn’t even look at the guy,” he said. “No, I don’t do that. We will make eye contact on the ice.

McDonald, who spoke by phone from Tampere, Finland, where he was watching the men’s world championships, recalled two particular five-on-five fights. In one game, he found himself up against Keith Acton, the 5-foot-8, 170-pound Edmonton center. In the other, he got tangled up with bruised Marty McSorley.

“I liked the one with Acton much better,” McDonald said with a laugh. “But you accepted the challenge and you couldn’t wait for the games.”

Fighting in hockey, while a thing of the past, echoes what it was in the 1980s. between Matthew Tkachuk of the Flames and Zack Kassian of Edmonton, and an old-school goalie fight between Cam Talbot and Mike Smith, in 2020.

It’s no surprise, then, that once the puck dropped in Game 1, the hits, nudges and tweets increased accordingly. In Game 1, Tkachuk taunted Edmonton’s Evander Kane about a personal bankruptcy filing Kane filed, rubbing his gloved fingers after a skirmish and asking Kane if he needed help. ‘money. Kane responded with a hat trick in Game 3.

The penalty boxes were overcrowded at times and Calgary’s meaty winger Milan Lucic set the tone in Game 1 by leveling Edmonton’s transcendent star Connor McDavid. In Game 3, Lucic received 15 penalty minutes, including a game misconduct, for ramming Smith into the boards. It is also the battle of Alberta.

With every hit, every shot, and every extra effort to push the puck out of the defensive ends, both arenas vibrated with the din, but Edmonton seemed more thunderous.

“That building was pretty, pretty loud tonight,” Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said after Game 3. Tuesday’s Game 4 should bring the same thing.

Shimmering Rogers Place, home of the Americas’ northernmost major sports team, is 186 miles north of Calgary’s old Saddledome, with Red Deer about 90 miles from each. But from all corners of Alberta, a beautiful province of glacial lakes and the Rocky Mountains known for oil production, rolling prairies and cattle ranches, loyalties are torn, sometimes even within families.

For Game 1, Riaz Hamir wore a blue and orange Oilers jersey at the Saddledome, as did his 12-year-old daughter, Laila. But his wife, Shafali, and their 15-year-old son, Junyard, both wore Calgary red. A divided house.

“There are a lot of good conversations over breakfast,” said Shafali Hamir, who danced and pointed to her husband sitting behind the glass as Calgary scored a key goal in their wild 9-6 first-leg win. match.

Ahead of both games in Calgary, thousands of fans wearing Flames jerseys marched along 17th Avenue’s so-called Red Mile, turning the boulevard into its usual game-day sea of ​​red. But with the Oilers in town, a fair number of blue jerseys stood out, and many of the groups included fans of both teams, chatting amiably on their way to the Saddledome.

Eric Eyolfson, who got his doctorate in neuroscience the afternoon of Game 1, went with his good friend, Grayson Magnus, a real estate agent and Oilers fan. They sat in a corner of the Saddledome, in different suits, and poked each other, but with no hard feelings.

“Well, it’s Canada,” Gretzky said, “so everyone’s nice. But it divides homes and families. It’s different from Islanders-Rangers or Montreal-Toronto. He has his own flavor.

McDonald, who recalled the atmosphere of the 1980s as far more menacing than it is now, was at the Saddledome for Game 1. He can’t wait to get back to Calgary for Game 5, but he couldn’t believe that after all those years of struggling with Gretzky, his Flames now have to face another superlative Oilers superstar in McDavid, who seems possessed by the magic touch of a Gretzky or a Mario Lemieux.

“He pushes his own limits,” said Edmonton forward Zach Hyman. “It’s obvious he’s the best player in the world.”

McDavid has nine points in the first three games (two goals and seven assists) for a total of 23 playoff points so far, as he carves abstract patterns on the ice as Calgary defensemen scramble to catch him. He was reinvigorated in his first foray into the historic provincial scrimmage.

“The way this guy is playing right now is special,” Woodcroft said. “He drives our team forward.”

The current Flames are struggling to find a way to stop McDavid and his teammates, just like the old Flames did with Gretzky and his people. And to capture all the fiery moments, the games were shown on the big video screen at Centrium Arena in Red Deer, home of the Rebels, a major junior team. A ticket seller, who said she was not allowed by company rules to give her name, is a true Red Deer neutral.

“People all ask me which side I’m on,” she said. “I always tell them, ‘I support Alberta.’ »

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