The Battle of Alberta: One of hockey’s great stories

Tons of Oilers legends are in town this week.

Well, it had to happen. For a guy who has been writing sports since he wandered into his university’s newspaper offices sometime back in 1984, a book was an eventuality.

So I chose The Battle of Alberta, for two reasons. One, it was a fascinating, seminal time in hockey history, when the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames represented the Clarence Campbell Conference in eight consecutive Stanley Cup finals. It encompassed the greatest players in the history of the game — Wayne Gretzky, Doug Gilmour, Mark Messier — in a time when the game was not nearly as structured or predictable as it is today.

And secondly, a lot of, er, stuff happened in The Battle – and a lot of funny stuff.

Like the time Jamie Macoun, fresh off his career at Ohio State University found himself negotiating his first contract, sans agent. He couldn’t name three Flames players at the time, and didn’t have a hot clue how much money to ask for.

“I remember saying to myself, ‘Well, bankers are getting this much. I should get as much as a banker gets,’” Macoun remembers. “Then they say, ‘Sure, this year that’s great. But what about next year?’ And I go, ‘You mean, everything changes…?’”

It’s like being a carpenter. You can frame a house, you can put in a kitchen, you can develop a basement… But at some point, don’t you want to buy a lot and construct the whole darned thing? If for no other reason than, for the rest of your life you can drive by, slow the car down, and tell your kids: “I built that house.”

As a writer, so goes the fascination with writing a book. I mean, who wouldn’t want to write and report all day, come home, and spend every evening and weekend for a good six months interviewing, writing and reporting some more? But for a pittance of what your day job pays?

I joke, I joke. McClelland and Stewart — not Kevin McClelland and Paul Stewart, but the publishing house — has generously taken the book on, and are waiting for some 70,000 words of copy to be delivered in the New Year. The book will be available leading into Christmas of 2015, and no matter the latent state of the current Battle of Alberta, I truly believe you will enjoy a walk back through this period of time when the Oilers and Flames were the two best teams in the National Hockey League — yet only one would emerge from the Smythe Division.

It is true what they say, that a writer will always write to deadline. As such, the midnight oil has burned next to a glass of Scotch in my home office for many nights now, and will do so right through Jan. 1, I am sure.

Full disclosure: When a daily column writer spends this much time on the same subject matter, there are times when you can not look it in the eye any longer. But I know hockey fans across the game will enjoy this book, because even after having heard the stories, transcribed them, found the proper chapter for them, then written and proof read said chapter, I still laugh out loud, or find my interest piqued at least once an evening at some story I’ve been told by one of these guys.

Like Grant Fuhr, talking about how Glen Sather parented the Oilers players as well as coaching them: “He gave us a lot of rope, so that we could learn on our own. But he also knew when to yank on the rope to reel us back in,” Fuhr said. “So he let us grow, thinking it was our idea.”

Or super-pest Neil Sheehy, captain of the non-existent Harvard Boxing Team, introducing himself to The Battle: “So here’s the thing. I was there to be a pest. To be an annoying SOB, OK? Listen, I understood why the guy (Gretzky) would despise and hate me. Because I was an annoying prick, you know? OK?”

Steve Smith spent 45 minutes with me on the phone a while ago, re-living the worst moment of his life, when he banked that clearing pass off of Fuhr’s leg and into the Oilers goal, the Game 7 winner for Calgary in 1986. “At the time it was devastating.”

But today? Today Steve Smith is kinder person for what he went through. “From that day forward I always had a sense of cheering for everyone. I never wanted anyone to have the day that I had that day.”

Stu Grimson, who took a beating from Dave Brown that would have ended the career of a lesser man, also came out a better person, if you can believe it.

“I was going to set it straight. That’s what I did,” said Brown of that fight, a rematch from one he’d lost two nights earlier to the rookie Grimson. “Broke my cheekbone and fractured my orbital in three different places. I had to have reconstructive surgery to square it all away,” recounted the Grim Reaper.

In a rivalry that featured more fights in a seven-game series than either the Flames or Oilers will have in any 50-game span today, that scrap marked the single most violent incident of all. “That was as wild a moment,” marveled 1000-plus game man Kevin Lowe. “Top 5 for me, for sure, in hockey.”

Or goofy Calgary winger Mike Bullard, a laugh-a-minute guy who was so famously speared by Marty McSorley one night at the old Northlands Coliseum: “Gary Roberts went in the corner and absolutely tattooed McSorley. A huge body check,” Bullard recalls. “He hurt him, and just as McSorley is coming by our bench (to get to his own), Crispy calls my name. I hop the boards. Well, there’s nothing like being in the wrong place at the wrong time…”

It was Calgary, it was Edmonton.

“Ali needed Frazier,” Mark Messier told me.

Indeed he did.