When you start talking rivalries in hockey there is a few that come to mind.The obvious one that jumps out is the battle of the two most storied franchises and the Toronto Maple Leafs vs the Montreal Canadiens. With countless storylines and decades of history to add fuel to the fire each time they play, it doesn’t seem to matter where each team stands at the time; all numbers are thrown out the window when they face off.
Their rivalry, however, has lost some of its lustre of the past number of years, whether it’s due to both teams struggling to be a Cup contender or even a playoff team, or the more recent Leafs nemesis, the Ottawa Senators, there just isn’t the same animosity whether the two see each other.
The newly formed “Battle of Ontario” of Leafs vs. Senators has only been in existence since the mid 90s and has heated up due to their proximity and years of tense playoff meetings with each other. While Habs vs. Leafs has history and longevity on its side, if you ask most fans under the age of 30, Ottawa is the Leafs biggest rival today.
Fans new to the NHL can look to recent emerging playoff battles like Blackhawks vs. Canucks or existing state rivalries like Pennsylvania’s Flyers vs. Penguins. There are countless others that are fierce but more localized rivalries. Michigan vs. Michigan State could be an all out war, but fans north of the border or the southern US are probably oblivious to it. There are at least a dozen Canadian Major Junior rivalries that fans live and die through, but they are specific to that area.
To me, the most entertaining rivalry, with a true hatred of each other, is the “Battle of Alberta” and the Calgary Flames vs. the Edmonton Oilers. It is one known throughout the league, Canada-wide and even American fans who don’t cheer for either team are well aware that the rivalry exists.
A rivalry dating back to the early 1980’s, Edmonton joined the league in 1979 from the World Hockey Association and the Atlanta Flames relocated to Calgary a year later in 1980, they have been dividing Alberta hockey fans for the last 30+ years. On the surface the rivalry appears obvious. After all they are they only two based Alberta teams in the league, they play in the same division and it’s only a three and a half hour drive down the highway between them. However it is much more than that, and there is a rich history and plenty of hard fought battles on the biggest stage to get it to where it is today.
The second half of the 80’s is where the rivalry really took off. From 1984 to 1990, the Flames and Oilers were two of the best teams in the NHL, the Oilers were in the midst of their dynasty run of Stanley Cups and the Flames had success of their own with a Cup in 1989 and were the Presidents Trophy winners in 1988.During that period, 1988 was the only year where neither team hoisted the Cup, and even then Calgary made the Finals but was ousted by Patrick Roy and the Canadiens.
There were plenty of superstars during that time on both teams for fans to come out and watch battle each other, with the Oilers pitting Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey against Calgary’s Lanny McDonald, Joe Nieuwendyk, Doug Gilmour and fan favourite Theo Fleury. They provided many memorable moments and highlights, with possibly the most memorable being a low-light, if you’re an Oilers fan that is. The Oilers had knocked the Flames out of the playoffs in 1983 and 1984 and were favoured again when they met in 1986.The series this year, however was decided by the infamous Steve Smith goal, when the Oilers defenseman accidentally put the puck in his own net, giving the Flames the series victory. It also brought the animosity and the rivalry to a new level.
1991 marked the last time the two would meet in the playoffs. It was one of the more exciting match-ups with a game 7 win by the underdog Oilers, led by Esa Tikkanen, en route to their last Stanley Cup. Neither team has had much playoff success over the last 20 years with each team appearing in one Stanley Cup Final. Calgary lost to Tampa Bay in game 7 in 2004 and the Oilers also went the distance in losing to Carolina in 2006.
There are many factors as to why this is; league expansion, economics in the 90’s which made it hard to keep star players or attract free agents, and more recently the salary cap and the parity that it’s brought. In fact, the league just does not produce dynasties any more for that reason. The 80’s Oilers were the last true dynasty that the NHL has seen.
For all of the reasons that the Flames and Oilers have not returned to their pedestal from the 80’s, they have not affected the Battle of Alberta. The fans of that province and those teams have not let the standings or the state of the league put a damper on the heat of battle when the two meet. For six regular season dates a year, the fans of each team have only one thought – how much they hate the other team.
The rivalry has been so fierce that it wasn’t until 2010 before there was even a trade made between the two teams, when Steve Staios was swapped for Aaron Johnson. It’s just not done.
Coming into the 2011-12 season, Calgary held the edge in the all-time series between the two with a slim 111-104-19 record and winning 11 of the last 12 meetings. However, with the Oilers in serious rebuild mode and loads of young talent, who knows if the scales will tip when, and if, their young stars reach their anticipated potential.
One thing I do know, as long as the Oilers are in Edmonton and the Flames reside in Calgary you’ll never go wrong buying a ticket to witness the Battle of Alberta.
Photo credit - nhlconnection.ca