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


ON THE ROAD BETWEEN CALGARY AND EDMONTON, Alberta — A white sedan trundled down a quiet road in Gasoline Alley, a tiny hamlet alongside Highway 2, with two flags flapping in a Saturday breeze. One fluttered for the Edmonton Oilers hockey club and the opposite for the Calgary Flames, two of the fiercest rivals in sports, waving from the windows of the identical automobile.

Red Deer is the geographical midpoint between Alberta’s two major cities — Edmonton to the north and Calgary due south — and loyalties will be split “about 52-48 for the Oilers,” as calculated by a server at a neighborhood Tim Hortons doughnut shop. For some families — and their cars — it may well be more like 50-50.

Carl Dies, a structural engineer who grew up in northern Alberta cheering passionately for the Oilers, was not surprised to listen to concerning the automobile with divided loyalties as he took a break at a Gasoline Alley indoor climbing facility.

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

Now they’re each good, and people colours are running white hot again. For the primary time in 31 years, the Battle of Alberta is re-engaged within the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the provincial adversaries are rumbling in a second-round encounter, boiling over with the heavy hits, trash talk, deafening arenas, bragging rights and bountiful goal scoring that defined hockey within the Eighties, when the Flames and Oilers played 4 postseason series.

“The intensity is as high because it gets,” said Lanny McDonald, the Hall of Fame winger, who grew up on a farm in Hanna, Alberta, east of Calgary, and played eight seasons with the Flames. “It’s bragging rights in sports, politics, culture, north vs. south, which side is best. We at all times think the South is best.”

The 2 cities quarrel over which has the higher team, the juicier steak, the hipper restaurant row — even the superior library. In the mean time, the meter tilts barely toward Edmonton after the Oilers comfortably won Game 3 on Sunday, to take a 2-1 series lead.

After the sport, Oilers fans poured onto the streets of Edmonton chanting, “We wish the Cup,” while some climbed atop a statue of Wayne Gretzky, waving flags while automobile horns honked for over an hour afterward. Only the third game of the second round and it was hopping. That is the Battle of Alberta.

For many years, before the Flames and the Oilers even existed, the Alberta sports competitions were played out by club and lower-level skilled hockey teams, within the local rodeos and thru the Canadian Football League.

But that is the Stanley Cup playoffs and that is Canada, where five-dollar bills depict children playing pond hockey, and where the Battle of Alberta stamped the ’80s with thrilling games and rollicking punch-ups.

“On the ice, there was a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears in that rivalry,” said Wayne Gretzky, the Hall of Fame forward and a member of the dominant Oilers from 1979 to 1988. “There was just an incredible desire to win on each side.”

Gretzky led the Oilers to 4 Stanley Cups within the Eighties — and almost as satisfying, won three playoff series against the Flames, starting in 1983. Originally a member of the World Hockey Association, the Edmonton Oilers joined the N.H.L. in 1979.

Additionally they went by the name Alberta Oilers for one season in 1972-73, but that was before the N.H.L. got here to Calgary. When the Flames moved there from Atlanta in 1980, it was on.

The rivalry was fierce enough within the regular season, but once the teams met within the playoffs games grew furious, fascinating and sometimes vicious. Even a superstar like Gretzky needed to be extra aware of what elbows and hips is perhaps thrown his way.

“That’s an enormous a part of it, and also you knew it was coming,” Gretzky said in a telephone interview. “It’s a battle and it’s a war, but there’s tremendous respect on each side.”

Gretzky scored an incredible 19 goals and assisted 27 others in 23 playoff games against the Flames. McDonald scored 10 with 13 assists. The teams faced each other 4 times within the playoffs between 1983 and 1988, and again in 1991, with Calgary’s only win coming in 1986. In eight consecutive seasons through 1990, one in all the 2 teams went to the Stanley Cup finals, with Calgary finally winning in 1989.

Each teams were so good that winning the Stanley Cup in that era required a visit to Alberta — and it was not for the timid. McDonald said that in those days, in the event you were playing some random team and saw one in all their players within the corridors of the sector, you’d smile, say hello and maybe chat.

“But once we passed the Oilers within the hallway, we wouldn’t even have a look at the guy,” he said. “Nope, not doing that. We’ll make eye contact on the ice.”

McDonald, who spoke via telephone from Tampere, Finland, where he was watching the lads’s world championships, recalled two particular five-on-five brawls. In a single, he found himself paired against Keith Acton, the 5-foot-8, 170-pound Edmonton center. In the opposite, he tangled with the bruising Marty McSorley.

“I liked the one with Acton loads higher,” McDonald said with fun. “But you accepted the challenge, and also you couldn’t wait for the games.”

Fighting in hockey, while extant, is an echo of what it was within the Eighties. Lately, because the rivalry erupted again, several frightening bouts erupted between the teams within the regular season, most notably between Matthew Tkachuk of the Flames and Edmonton’s Zack Kassian, and an old-fashioned goalie fight between Cam Talbot and Mike Smith, in 2020.

So, it was no surprise that when the puck dropped in Game 1, the checking, elbowing and chirping spiked accordingly. In Game 1, Tkachuk taunted Edmonton’s Evander Kane over a private bankruptcy case Kane filed, by rubbing his gloved fingers together after a skirmish and asking Kane if he needed money. Kane responded with a hat trick in Game 3.

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

With each hit, each shot and each extra effort made to push the puck out of the defensive ends, each arenas pulsated under the din, but Edmonton’s seemed more thunderous.

“That constructing was quite, quite loud tonight,” Oilers Coach Jay Woodcroft said after Game 3. Game 4 on Tuesday is anticipated to bring more of the identical.

The shimmering Rogers Place, home of essentially the most northern major sports team within the Americas, lies 186 miles north of the outdated Saddledome in Calgary, with Red Deer about 90 miles from each. But from every corner of Alberta, a shocking province of glacial lakes and the Rocky Mountains known for oil production, rolling prairies and cattle ranches, loyalties are torn, sometimes even inside families.

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

“There may be plenty of good trash-talking at breakfast,” said Shafali Hamir, who danced and pointed at her husband of their seats behind the glass when Calgary scored a key goal in its wild 9-6 Game 1 victory.

Before each games in Calgary, 1000’s of fans in Flames jerseys marched along the so-called Red Mile of seventeenth Ave., turning the boulevard into its usual game-day sea of red. But with the Oilers on the town, variety of blue jerseys stood out, and lots of groups included fans of each teams, chatting amiably on their solution to the Saddledome.

Eric Eyolfson, who earned his doctorate in neuroscience on the afternoon of Game 1, went together with his good friend, Grayson Magnus, an actual estate agent and Oilers fan. They sat in a corner of the Saddledome, in numerous jerseys, and needled each other, but without rancor.

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

McDonald, who recalled the atmosphere within the Eighties as loads more menacing than it’s now, was on the Saddledome for Game 1. He’s itching to get back to Calgary for Game 5, but he couldn’t imagine that in any case those years grappling with Gretzky, his Flames must now contend with one other superlative Oilers superstar in McDavid, who looks possessed with the magical touch of a Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.

“He’s pushing his own limits,” said Zach Hyman, the Edmonton forward. “It’s just evident he’s the perfect player on this planet.”

McDavid has nine points in the primary three games (two goals and 7 assists) for a complete of 23 points within the playoffs to date, as he carves abstract patterns across the ice while Calgary defenders flail attempting to catch him. He has been invigorated in his first foray into the historic provincial fray.

“The way in which this guy is playing without delay is special,” Woodcroft said. “He’s driving our team forward.”

The present Flames are struggling to search out a solution to stop McDavid and his teammates, just because the old Flames did with Gretzky and his. And to capture all of the spirited moments, the games have been shown on the big video screen of Red Deer’s Centrium arena, where the Rebels, a significant junior team, play. A ticket seller, who said she was not permitted by company rule to offer her name, is a real Red Deer neutral.

“The people all ask me which side I’m on,” she said. “I at all times tell them, ‘I’m rooting for Alberta.’”

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