Bile back in Battle of Alberta

Updated: October 17, 2005, 2:11 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

It used to be, to derisive Calgarians, Edmonton was nothing more than a big town with a large mall full of lava lamps and fast-food counters. Calgary, countered dismissive Edmontonians, was just an uppity "City Slickers" knockoff propped up by an overhyped rodeo.

The geographical border war between them was waged on ice -- in wins and losses, blood and sutures, championships and runners-up. The Battle of Alberta was raw and personal, forged by the unparalleled artistry and dominance of the Wayne Gretzky-Glen Sather Edmonton Oilers. Three hours south, the Calgary Flames had to find a way to catch up or be forever choking on the exhaust.

Such intensity sparked excellence. During an amazing eight-year run from 1983 to 1990, a team from Alberta reached the Stanley Cup finals every spring.

"At times,'' said former Flames goaltender Don Edwards, "it was vicious. The hatred in the room … you'd come off after a period wanting to cut some guy's head off.''

Ah, but times change. So do economics. So does the cycle of success.

By the mid-'90s, the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers had been thrown together, both fighting to survive -- not thrive. For years, the Battle had fallen into disrepair. Lip service, more than anything else, out of a sense of obligation and nostalgia dredged up emotion, rather than any tangible hatred.

And, in a sense, the organizations felt a certain amount of comradery as spiraling salaries and a nosediving Canadian dollar conspired to threaten their very existence.

Why, as the Flames staged that remarkable run to the Cup finals in the spring of 2004, there were actually verified reports of Calgary window-flags adorning cars in Edmonton.

Sacrilege! Heresy! What would Badger Bob Johnson have said?!

Well, store all the warm, fuzzy feelings. The bile is back (those snickers you hear in the background are fans in Oil-drop replica jerseys mocking the Flames' limp start to the season).

With the new economics of the NHL firing hopes for a return to glory in both cities, Saturday night at the Pengrowth Saddledome will mark the first installment of the renewed rivalry. The Oilers are buoyed by the additions of Michael Peca and Chris Pronger; the Flames, fresh off that remarkable springtime of '04, are bolstered by Tony Amonte, Darren McCarty, Roman Hamrlik and Daymond Langkow.

The last time both teams made the playoffs in the same year was 1991. Incidentally, that also marked the last playoff series between them.

With the shifting emphasis on divisional match-ups, two more head-to-head confrontations have been added to the schedule. And with the Flames and Oil, it's always been a case of the more, the merrier. Or, on many nights, the scarier.

"I like it,'' Flames captain Jarome Iginla said. "There's just a different feeling when we play Edmonton, or Vancouver now, too. The whole city builds up to the game days before. The way the schedule has been the past few years, we could go months between games against either of them.

"How well we do against Edmonton this year is going a long way in where we wind up in the standings. Which means every time we play them is going to be huge.''

Iginla thinks the league might've gone even further in igniting the existing feuds.

"I'd love to see more back-to-back games against divisional rivals, actually,'' he confesses."Those would be a lot of fun. That way, there's carryover, nothing gets lost or forgotten."

The architect behind Calgary's 1989 Stanley Cup championship team, whose blueprint for success was finding a way to beat the Oilers' juggernaut of Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and Grant Fuhr, knows that fans not old enough to remember the Battle as spectacle are in for a treat this season.

"I think it's a fantastic thing for the Flames,'' said Cliff Fletcher, now senior vice-president of hockey operations for the Phoenix Coyotes."You're going to play the Oilers as many times as we used to. Eight. Virtually 10 percent of your schedule. Those were litmus tests for our team.

"I suppose there might be some complaining about not seeing Montreal or Toronto or Philadelphia in a season. But as it was, those Eastern teams would only visit a western city once every two years anyway. So now it's once in three. What's the difference?''

Now fans in both cities have eight dates to circle on their pocket calendars. But can the rivalry ever reach the same sort of heights it did during the '80s?

"Who says it can't? I don't think it ever really went away,'' replies Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe. "It just kind of got sidetracked.

"A lot of great things have happened to the NHL in the last few months. A Calgary-Edmonton playoff series next spring would be another. It'd be wild.

"Two years ago, remember, the difference between them making the playoffs and us missing out was the head-to-head record between the two teams. That's tough to forget. Plus, we've got a lot of guys, like Ryan [Smyth] and Jason [Smith], who've been around a while and played them a lot. They've got guys like Jarome and Robyn [Regehr] on their side.

"Rivalries are built by playing teams lots of times and by the importance of the games. Who says we can't have the rivalry as hot as it was in the '80s to early '90s? All it'd take is one playoff series, get the two cities revved up, to have it really up and running again.

"People down east talk about Ottawa and Toronto as a provincial rivalry. Sorry, it doesn't compare. This one has been going on for … generations.''

And the current generation, the one to whom names like Dave Semenko and Dave Lumley and Glenn Anderson and Doug Risebrough and Paul Baxter and Tim Hunter are not only from a different era but a different game, might be able to get in on all the fun, too.

During the Battle's heyday, one of the legendary characters of the conflict, Oilers ruffian Marty McSorley, injured at the time, was making his way to the Edmonton dressing room from the press box one night in Calgary.

"When the game was over,'' he recalled a number of years ago, "on the way down, I must've had 1,500 offers for fights. Right there. Right then.

"I mean, these people wanted a piece of my ass. It was the rivalry. They were living it.''

With any luck, they'll be living it again.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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