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After 31 years, one of hockey’s most intense rivalries is back for the playoffs

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On April 16, 1991, Esa Tikkanen lifted the Edmonton Oilers past the Calgary Flames with an overtime goal in Game 7 of the Smythe Division semifinals that completed a hat trick. It would be the final postseason chapter in the Battle of Alberta until Wednesday, when the provincial foes renew one of hockey’s most intense rivalries with their first playoff matchup in 31 years.

The Oilers joined the NHL in 1979, while the Flames relocated to Calgary from Atlanta a year later. Over the next decade, these two western Canada teams separated by 185 miles transformed Alberta into the center of the hockey universe. They met in the playoffs five times from 1983 to 1991 and combined for eight Stanley Cup finals appearances — and six titles — during that span.

When the Flames and Oilers met, the games were always physical and often violent.

“When you look back and you think about the Battle of Alberta, every time you went into that building, you knew you were going to shed some blood,” Oilers defenseman Steve Smith told author Mark Spector, who wrote “The Battle of Alberta.” “And hopefully you were going to take some with you.”

“It was complete hatred,” said Sportsnet play-by-play voice Chris Cuthbert, who called the 1991 playoff series between the Flames and Oilers and will be in the booth Wednesday night in Calgary for Game 1 of their second-round series. “It was like two superpowers that were mobilizing just to beat each other. There was always the next move, and there was an expectation that one of those teams would at least reach the final.”

The Oilers, led for most of the 1980s by Wayne Gretzky, got the better of the Flames in four of their five playoff meetings. Edmonton defeated Calgary in seven games in 1984 en route to its first of five Stanley Cup championships over the next seven years. In 1986, the Flames outlasted the Oilers in another classic series, with Smith, then a rookie, providing the winning tally when he banked an own goal off the back of Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr’s left skate in the third period of Game 7.

When the teams met again in the playoffs in 1988, Gretzky paved the way for an Oilers sweep with a shorthanded goal in overtime of Game 2, a wicked slap shot over Flames goalie Mike Vernon’s left shoulder that ranks among the Great One’s favorites. Game 3 featured one of the rivalry’s uglier incidents, when Calgary’s Mike Bullard was taken off the ice on a stretcher after being speared by Edmonton’s Marty McSorley.

The 1991 meeting was the first without Gretzky, who had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings, but it was every bit as riveting as the previous four matchups. Flames forward Theo Fleury forced a deciding Game 7 with a breakaway goal in overtime of Game 6, which he capped with a sliding celebration in front of a stunned Edmonton crowd. Calgary jumped out to a 3-0 advantage in the first period of Game 7 at home but couldn’t hold the lead. Oilers captain Mark Messier could barely muster the energy to get off the bench and join his teammates in celebration after Tikkanen’s winner ended a physical series that included 28 roughing penalties.

“It was old-school hockey. It was primitive stuff, and they went at it hard for seven games,” Cuthbert said. “It was the culmination of like a seven-year war.”

A detente followed. Neither team has won a title since Edmonton raised the Stanley Cup in 1990, and this year marks only the fourth time that the Flames and Oilers have qualified for the playoffs in the same season since 1991. There have been memorable regular season moments in the Battle of Alberta, including when then-Oilers coach Craig MacTavish ripped the cloth tongue out of Flames mascot Harvey the Hound’s mouth in 2003 and a more recent feud between Edmonton’s Zack Kassian and Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk, but nothing on the level of the rivalry’s playoff-fueled heyday.

“The playoffs do make the rivalries,” Cuthbert said. “There was so much of it back then. I find it hard to believe that we’ve had to wait this long, but I think once the sparks ignite things, it’s going to feel just like the good old days. I don’t know if the level of hate is there because the game’s a little bit different now, but I think there might be more juice in both cities. … I think that’s going to fuel the passion on the ice, too — not that it needs it.”

The anticipation for the series is especially pronounced in Red Deer, a city of 100,000 equidistant from Edmonton and Calgary. Flames and Oilers fans are equally prevalent in Red Deer and used to gather to watch playoff games at the Crown and Anchor, a since-closed bar with a line drawn down the middle to separate supporters of both teams.

“I don’t know what will happen in the rest of the world over the next two weeks, but it will be hockey mania in Alberta,” Red Deer Mayor Ken Johnston said. “This is a province that’s emerging after several years of not only covid but also depressed energy prices. As much as we’re rivals, we just long for that social contact that hockey brings, and we’re going to get our fill of it over the next two weeks.”

There’s plenty of talent on both sides of the rivalry. Oilers captain Connor McDavid had a playoff-best 14 points when ­the second-round series began Tuesday night after leading the league in scoring during the regular season. The 25-year-old, born six years after the previous postseason Battle of Alberta, figured in five of the six goals the Oilers scored in Games 6 and 7 of their first-round series win over the Los Angeles Kings.

The Pacific Division champion Flames are led by their top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Tkachuk. Calgary allowed the fewest goals among Western Conference teams during the regular season and survived an upset bid by the Dallas Stars in the first round, thanks to the stellar goaltending of Jacob Markstrom.

Johnston, who became a Flames fan while living in Calgary before moving to Red Deer in the mid-1990s, said McDavid has the look of a player who will take the Oilers all the way. No matter what happens in this series, roughly half of the mayor’s constituency is guaranteed to be happy with the result.

“For an elected representative,” Johnston said with a laugh, “you’ll take 50 percent any day.”


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