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The History of the Battle of Alberta

The Battle of Alberta once had it all: frequent fighting, public urination, mind games with The Great One, etc. More than three decades have passed since the good ol’ Gory Days, but the stage has been set for them to renew hostilities.
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All right, children – and by children we mean anyone under 40 – gather around the fire, huddle up, and make yourselves comfortable. It’s NHL Story Time. 

Tonight we’re going to recount a few epic tales from the Battle of Alberta, not to be confused with the Battle of Ontario, that glorified pillow fight that involves the city that is obsessed with making all the money and the one that is obsessed with spending all the money. These are stories of valor and courage, skulduggery and deceit, the joy of victory, the agony of defeat, and of people peeing on signs. They’re about guys taking up arms against their own cousins, with Jeff Beukeboom breaking sticks over Joe Nieuwendyk’s back. And the best thing about all of them is that they’re actually true. There once really was a Battle of Alberta, and it was fierce and compelling.

>STORY NO. 1: March 23, 2002

There once was a man by the name of Craig Button, and in the summer of 2000, he became the GM of the Calgary Flames. One Saturday night, after a Flames loss at the old Skyreach Centre in Edmonton – what, they actually called it that? – Button was making his way down the staircase from the press box when he noticed a man in an Oilers sweater verbally abusing two fans wearing Flames sweaters. At the same time, Button noticed a very large, very burly man in an Oilers sweater coming up with his girlfriend from his seat to have a word with the other Oilers fan. He calmly asked the man to stop his behavior. And that’s when things got interesting.

“The guy was really being abusive,” Button said. “So the other guy says to him, ‘Stop doing that. That’s no way to act.’ And the guy says, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’ So the guy took one step and hit the other guy right square in the head. All you heard was ‘thud,’ and the guy goes back on his ass and his face is full of blood. Then the guy turns to the Calgary fans and he says, ‘Listen, we love beating you, but that’s no way to treat anybody. I’m sorry you had to experience that.’ ”

>STORY NO. 2: Jan. 10, 1982

Once upon a time there was a very handsome and talented young Oilers defenseman by the name of Paul Coffey. He had great hair and was quite dashing, capable of getting from one place to another very quickly. For the first three years after the Flames relocated to Calgary from Atlanta, they played in the Stampede Corral, a lovely old place with obscenely high boards that seated about 7,000 and had a huge neon sign of a cowboy on the front. It was home to Stampede Wrestling, where some of the biggest names in the sport got their start. But it was during hockey games that the fights were actually real.

Anyway, one night, our young hero noticed his friend Mark Messier had been grabbed by Mel Bridgman of the Flames. For reasons that aren’t at all clear or even logical, young Coffey was under the impression that his friend needed to have this particular battle fought for him, so he intervened. “Mel hit me with so many lefts,” Coffey recalled, “that I was begging for a right. But it was great, I didn’t care. Hey, I was 19 years old.”

>STORY NO. 3: Nov. 7, 2004

It was a lovely fall Sunday afternoon less than two months after Flames defenseman Rhett Warrener had been locked out of work by the bad men of the evil empire. So, with a little more time on his hands, he decided to have some fun and join a bus trip with a group of Saskatchewaners, Saskatchewanians, Saskatchewanites people from his home province – you know, the one that’s easy to draw and impossible to spell. They were living in Calgary and were on their way to Edmonton to watch Warrener’s beloved Roughriders in the Canadian Football League playoffs. There are unconfirmed reports that some alcohol might have been involved.

Anyway, as the bus was making its way into town and approaching the sign that said, “Welcome to Edmonton, City of Champions,” a sign that has since been taken down because their teams stopped being champions, the vast majority of those on board felt the need to immediately respond to nature’s calling. They implored the bus driver to stop and, when he did, a good number of them got out and did their business right there on the sign. Warrener recalls the incident, but will not say whether he was one of the urinators. “I honestly don’t remember if I did it because I was like, ‘I don’t know if I should do this,’ ” Warrener said. “ ‘Can I get into trouble for this?’ It was something. I’m surprised we didn’t get arrested.”

That’s it for NHL Story Time, at least for now. But if there is any justice in the hockey world, we’ll have new chapter or two to read to you soon. After so many years of having their circadian rhythms completely out of whack, there is some hope the Oilers and Flames will rekindle the Battle of Alberta, likely in the second round of the playoffs. It would be the first time since 1991 they’ve met in the post-season, back when the Crown and Anchor Pub in Red Deer, which is smack dab in the middle between the two cities on Highway 2, would put a line down the middle of the bar during the playoffs. Oilers fans would congregate at the north end of the bar, and Flames supporters would watch and consume their beers on the south side of the line, under the watchful eye of the deer head mounted over the fireplace that would be outfitted with a referee’s sweater and renamed Antler Van Hellemond. The Crown and Anchor is long gone and, after several reincarnations, is now called Industry Skate and Snow, where local hipsters have their skate and snowboard needs met.

But the Battle of Alberta is not dead. It’s just gone into a very long repose, waiting to be revived. Nothing creates or sustains a rivalry like a playoff series when both teams are contenders. And if that happens this spring, fans will once again stand cheek-to-jowl along the Blue Mile on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton and the Red Mile on 17th Avenue in Calgary. Where there was once blood, there will probably be memes now. After all, the game isn’t the same as it was in the 1980s and early ’90s when the Oilers and Flames went hammer and tong against each other in an arms race between two of the NHL’s titans. The Oilers, built on speed and elan with some of the greatest players to ever play the game, won almost all the Cups. The Flames struggled to keep up early, then, under the guidance of GM Cliff Fletcher, built an imposing, talented team that may have lacked the superstar attractions of the Oilers but were able to keep up with them stride for stride. In the eight years from 1984 through ’91, the Oilers and Flames accounted for six of the league’s Stanley Cup champions. Yeah, the Oilers had five of those and that sticks in the craw of their rivals to the south. Nobody has ever mistakenly referred to Calgary as the City of Champions the way they used to talk about Edmonton. Entering the 1978 CFL season, the Calgary Stampeders had won two Grey Cups and the Edmonton Eskimos (now Elks) had won four. Close, but then the Eskimos/Elks said to Calgary, “Hold my beer,” and went out and won five straight between ’78 and ’82, thus beginning a long period where Edmonton looked down the highway and down their noses at Calgary.

“It’s a tale of two cities,” said former Flames defenseman Neil Sheehy. “Two cities that hate each other.”

Wikipedia describes the Battle of Alberta as, “a term applied to the intense rivalry between the cities of Calgary, the province’s most populous city (since 1976), and Edmonton, the capital of the province of Alberta (since 1905). Most often it is used to describe sporting events between the two cities, although this is not exclusive as the rivalry predates organized sports in Alberta.” Yeah, but nowhere has it played out more than between the two cities’ hockey teams. Still, Wiki’s right, the rivalry goes back to the days of the 19th century, when Edmonton got the railroad. Not long after, it was named capital of the province and got the University of Alberta. For the longest time, the two cities were about the same size, but then Calgary became the home of the oil barons and the headquarters for their companies, while Edmonton was relegated to serving the oil patch. Edmonton got the Commonwealth Games, Calgary got the Winter Olympics. Edmonton got a spanking new arena, which was built partly on taxpayer money, while Calgary hasn’t quite figured that one out yet. The Flames have the superior head-to-head record in the regular season, but when it comes to the playoffs, it’s not close. The Oilers have won four of the five playoff series between the two teams, the only exception coming in 1986 when a rookie defenseman by the name of Steve Smith banked the puck off the back of Grant Fuhr’s leg and into the Edmonton net in the third period of Game 7 to break a tie. The tug-o-war was and always will be, and it provides some compelling moments when it plays itself out on the ice.

Sheehy is a Harvard-educated guy who later got his law degree and became a player agent (he’s also the only player in NHL history to wear the number zero). He had signed with Calgary as a free agent out of college in 1983 and was trying to find his place when Flames coach Bob Johnson called him into the coach’s office one day after practice. “He said to me in that gravelly voice, ‘Sheehy, you’re just like an actor in a Broadway play,’ ” Sheehy recalled. “And he said, ‘You know what happens when actors can’t act?’ And I said, ‘What happens, coach?’ And he said, ‘We bring in new actors. Now, get out there and entertain those people!’ ” It was at that moment that Sheehy embraced the rivalry and decided he was going to play his part in it.

Wearing the black hat like the Stampede Wrestling villains did at the old Corral back in the day came with a price, but becoming a thorn in the side of the greatest player in the world was something that would keep Sheehy in the lineup. So he decided then and there that he’d badger Wayne Gretzky incessantly and drive the Oilers to distraction, but when it came time to drop his gloves, he’d simply skate away. One game, Oilers tough guy Kevin McClelland wanted him to fight, but Sheehy told McClelland that he’d get fined by the team for fighting such a terrible player. McClelland offered to pay the fine for him. Sheehy said he and teammate Gary Suter would sit after practice and concoct ridiculous things Sheehy could say on the ice to needle the Oilers in general and Gretzky in particular.

Sheehy remembered one game when the Flames had defeated the Oilers and Gretzky got upset and called him out after the game. He called Sheehy a chicken and a turtle and admonished him for refusing to fight. And, of course, members of the media went to Sheehy for his reaction. “I said, ‘You know what’s really interesting is I read an article earlier in the season where Wayne said we should take fighting out of the game,’ ” Sheehy said. “I said, ‘Go ask Wayne, does he want me to fight or not to fight? I didn’t think he wanted me to fight.’ ” Members of the media, knowing the potential for great copy when they saw it, went back to Gretzky for his reaction. “Then Wayne said, ‘Neil Sheehy is the single reason why fighting should not be taken out of the game,’ ”

Sheehy recalled. “They asked me about this on camera, and I just looked into the camera and said, ‘Yup, it’s working.’”

Even though the rivalry has created those moments, it has always been about so much more than grandstanding. It was never fabricated or exaggerated because it didn’t need to be. The Oilers were the envy of the league, one of the greatest dynasties to ever play the sport, and that forced the Flames to be creative and innovative in order to keep up. The Oilers had a bunch of superstars, while the Flames were more a triumph of the collective. In goal, Mike Vernon of the Flames was really good, but Fuhr was just a little better for the Oilers. The Flames produced a stunning array of talent, much of it coming from the U.S. college pipeline, but they were never a man-for-man match with the Oilers. And the more things change, well…

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Thirty-one years after Theo Fleury scored in overtime of Game 6 and responded with one of the greatest goal celebrations in the history of the game, the hockey world waits patiently for what would be must-watch playoff viewing. The Oilers still have the superstars, with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, while the surprising Flames, under Darryl Sutter’s renaissance as a coach, have been one of the NHL’s most pleasant surprises. 

The Flames entered the stretch run as one of the best defensive teams in the league, while the Oilers can sometimes be a wretched mess in their own end and, especially, the goal crease. Games have an annoying way of getting away from them. The last game of the season between the two teams, a 9-5 beatdown for the Flames in late March, was a tantalizing teaser of what might materialize in the playoffs. The Oilers were outscored 9-2 in 5-on-5 play but were a near-miss from Evander Kane away from tying the game 6-6 early in the third period. Matthew Tkachuk of the Flames complained after the game that the scoresheet was too hard to read, and Sutter, remarking on Draisaitl scoring a hat trick in the game, said, “Only thing I didn’t like was all them black hats that got thrown on the ice. There must have been a deal in (the Edmonton suburb of) Leduc or something.”

Yes, this has wonderful possibilities. What that game did is remind us how important the rivalry is to both cities and the hockey world. When you go all those years without meeting in the playoffs and, with the exceptions of 2004 when the Flames made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final and 2006 when the Oilers did the same thing, you don’t experience a whole lot of success, it’s easy to forget how intense this rivalry has been and how good it could be once it gets an injection of juice. The Oilers and the Flames are both on the verge of making strides as organizations. And even beyond this season, there’s hope these two teams could make a habit of meeting in the post-season. “The Battle of Alberta is like a set of tires you haven’t had air in for a long time,” said veteran journalist Mark Spector, who literally wrote the book on the rivalry when he penned The Battle of Alberta in 2015. “You can keep running on those tires for a while, but at some point you need to pull up to the pump and put some air in them. There are kids here who don’t even know what it’s all about.”

With all due respect, Coffey said that final game of the season between the Oilers and the Flames wasn’t even close to the nastiness the two teams would produce 30 years ago. There wasn’t even a goalie fight, although Mike Smith came close to getting into it with Tkachuk, who looks poised to be fitted for the black hat once worn by the likes of Sheehy. But the game has also undergone a fundamental shift since then and, you know, you have to start somewhere. If the two teams do meet in the playoffs, it’s doubtful that Industry Skate and Snow in Red Deer will place a line down the middle of the store, but those who know these two cities don’t believe it will take much blowing on the embers to restart the fire. 

In reality, Edmonton and Calgary are no different in their love for the game and their teams as supporters in hockey-mad cities like Toronto and Montreal. They’re just smaller hockey markets. But when their two teams meet in the playoffs, they’re like the skilled forward who plays alongside Dave Semenko or Tim Hunter – they get a little bigger and puff their chests out a little more.

Three decades later, the alumni associations for the Oilers and Flames work together to raise money for charities in Alberta. Coffey speaks about Lanny McDonald with reverence. He gets along great with Jamie Macoun. What was unfathomable all those years ago has tamed. It is now time for the current players to take the torch. “I’m sure (the former Flames) would tell you the same thing,” Coffey said. “It’s never personal. It’s sport. Hey, now Lanny is 60 and a bit, I’m 60, Wayne’s 60, Mark is 60 and we look back with nothing but respect for the Calgary Flames. We still would like to beat them every single day of the week."

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