Skip to main content
the prospect

The arrival of 18-year-old centre Connor McDavid has given the Edmonton Oilers help to reanimate the team and perhaps give new life to the rivalry with Calgary.Walter Tychnowicz

It has been ages since games with much meaning were contested between Alberta's pro hockey teams. Young stars such as Edmonton's Connor McDavid and Calgary's Sean Monahan weren't born the last time the Oilers and Flames met in the playoffs, and only once since 1991 have the teams reached the postseason in the same year.

A rivalry lacks pizzazz when its combatants are struggling, and as such the Battle of Alberta has withered. With the teams meeting Saturday night at Rexall Place for the second of five games this season, it remains an uncivil war waiting to be rekindled.

A feud has always simmered between the province's two biggest cities. They are separated by 300 kilometres, but beyond that, there is a great cultural and political divide. They squabble constantly, whether it is over sports teams or the placement of the capital building or dollars for school construction. The Tories are deeply entrenched in Calgary; Edmonton, by comparison, is its more left-leaning foil.

Hockey has always played a role in the disharmony.

The rivalry dates to 1895, when a brigade of Calgary firefighters travelled to Edmonton and trounced a team drawn from local detachments of Mounties.

The Oilers and Flames came along 85 years later, and have shown great disdain for one another from the start. The discord became especially bitter in the second half of the 1980s, when both ranked among the NHL's best teams.

One or the other reached the Stanley Cup finals each year from 1983 to 1990, and the games between them became more of a tale of the tape rather than a tale of two teams.

When they collided, every day was boxing day.

"It was like the Red Sox versus the Yankees, but worse," says Dave Lumley, a winger in 386 games for Edmonton over seven seasons beginning in 1979. "It was the only time I ever thought someone might get killed."

Once, the Oilers and Flames combined to take 177 minutes in penalties – in a preseason contest. On another occasion, they dropped their gloves three times, and collected 70 penalty minutes in the first 34 seconds of a game. Another time, following a fight, Calgary's Doug Risebrough used his skates to chop up Marty McSorley's Oilers sweater in the penalty box.

"It's a perfect example of the mentality the teams took into the game when they played against one another," McSorley, 52, says. "There were scrums after every whistle, face washes, pokes in the back of the legs. That's what really bothered us."

Through much of the 1980s, the Oilers were NHL kingpins, fielding a lineup that included Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr, among other eventual Hall of Famers. The Flames were a ragtag bunch who played with a chip on their shoulders.

"Our feeling was that they tried to build a team to beat us," McSorley says. "In Edmonton, we built a team to beat everybody."

The clashes made for great theatre and edge-of-your-seat hockey. There were nasty brawls, including one in which Messier sucker-punched Calgary defenceman Jamie Macoun, breaking his cheekbone, in retaliation for a hit on an Edmonton player. Another night, the refs banished both teams to their dressing rooms while players' sticks, gloves and other pieces of discarded gear were collected on the ice. If given the opportunity, they would have fought some more.

"We were like two forces pounding at one another – an explosion of some sort had to occur at one point or another," says Kevin Lowe, a great defenceman for Edmonton in that era. Now 56, Lowe is vice-chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group. "The games were so tough, we didn't look forward to them. We had to rise to a whole different level when we played them. They had the firepower and toughness to compete with us. The only ones who had fun were the fans."

The battles between them were desperate because each knew that winning a championship was unattainable without conquering the other. In 1984 and 1988, the Oilers turfed the Flames from the playoffs en route to winning Stanley Cups. In 1986, Calgary returned the favour, eliminating Edmonton in seven games in the division finals. The Flames went on to lose to the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup, but at least won bragging rights in Alberta.

The rivalry has lost its edge since then, as both teams have struggled. But there is a hope that the good bad old days will soon return. Calgary reached the playoffs last year for the first time in five seasons, and Edmonton's fortunes are rising with McDavid.

On Oct. 17, the 18-year-old scored two goals and assisted on a third in a 5-2 Oilers' victory in Calgary. A year ago, the Oilers failed to win any of their five games against the Flames.

"When I think back to the Oilers and the Flames, I remember the intensity and all of the great players on both teams," says Brad Treliving, the Calgary general manager. "It was a rivalry in every sense of the word. Both teams have gone through a period of building, and what's lost on people is that, as that was occurring, other teams were getting stronger.

"Our focus is what we have to do to make our team better, but if a byproduct is holding up our end in the rivalry, that's great. We recognize the historical nature."

Among the great players to take part in the Battle of Alberta, there was a relatively unaccomplished one who played a critical role. A Harvard graduate with only modest ability, Neil Sheehy became famous for shadowing Gretzky.

"It made my career," Sheehy, 55, says.

Now a player's agent in Minnesota, Sheehy would plant himself beside Gretzky as he would go the corner and wait for the puck to be passed.

"When he got it, I would keep my hands low to avoid a penalty and then quickly slam him into the boards," Sheehy says. "I had no delusions that I was ever shutting him down. I was just trying to make sure he didn't have a six-point game. Success against him was relative."

Sheehy so annoyed the Great One that when a ban on fighting was being debated, he sided with the pugilists.

"At the time, Gretzky said, 'Sheehy is the single reason fighting shouldn't be eliminated,'" he says. "When I heard that, I snickered and said, 'It's working.'"

It was a long time ago, but memories from those games stay with him. The skirmishes against the Oilers were the most difficult of his career.

"It was like going to war," he says. "You had to have a bunker mentality. It wasn't for the faint of heart, that's for sure."

When he was a player, and a few years after that, Sheehy would ignore Oilers' players when he saw them off the ice.

"I couldn't even stand to look at them," he says. "We despised one another."

Now, when he sees Lowe or any other survivors of those battles, they exchange wide grins.

"We have come to realize what a really special time that was," Sheehy says. "Now, when we look back, we are almost like brothers."