Junior battle of Alberta set to kick off

Edmonton native and Calgary Hitmen defenceman Jaynen Rissling. (WHL Images)

Jessie Lowe had that unmistakable look in her eye.

It’s the type of look developed through years of watching her son compete in one of hockey’s fiercest rivalries. The teams may be different now, but the cities remain the same. And while the lineage now means her grandson, Keegan, as opposed to her son, Kevin, will compete in the battle of Alberta, Jessie made sure three Edmonton Oil Kings players understood the significance of their next playoff series.

"If there’s any game you have to win," she told Keegan and his teammates Henrik Samuelsson and T.J. Foster on Monday night, "it has to be against Calgary."

"She learned to hate Calgary," Keegan explained. "She can’t stand to lose to Calgary."

The battle of Alberta transcends the sport, so it’s only natural now that the Western Hockey League teams inhabiting Alberta’s two biggest cities would bring forward those same sentiments as the clubs prepare to meet in the Eastern Conference final.

For the better part of five years, the two teams coexisted in a landscape that included three other provincial rivals. It always meant a little something more when the two teams met, but the intensity and passion of the Flames-Oilers rivalry escaped the junior counterparts.

Sure, they met once in the playoffs in 2009, when the powerhouse Hitmen swept the Oil Kings in a mostly unremarkable and unmemorable first-round series. This one should be memorable regardless of the outcome, as they meet at the highest level with a berth to the league championship series on the line.

"(The rivalry) isn’t as well-known on the junior level," Hitmen goaltender Chris Driedger acknowledged. "It’s going to be a lot of tension out there and whoever comes out on top is going to be having serious bragging rights for next year."

Those bragging rights are what fuel a rivalry.

But there are wrinkles where the junior battle of Alberta is concerned. For one, the collection of players born and raised in one city while playing for the other is staggering. Hitmen defenceman Jaynen Rissling has already made a convert of his dad, Kelly, if only on the junior level.

Upon being drafted by the Hitmen in 2008, Kelly Rissling kidded with his son that he was a "traitor," while in 2009 his new teammates who were from Calgary good-heartedly ribbed him over his roots.

"They all kind of poked fun at me being from Edmonton and said they felt bad for me, but I guess the battle of Alberta goes (beyond) hockey," he said. "It’s kind of funny just being in the middle of it and hearing stuff from both sides."

Rissling grew up an Oilers fan, and even played his first WHL game in the same building he watched the battle of Alberta play out in Edmonton. Although his Hitmen are owned by the Flames, his NHL allegiance hasn’t much changed.

"Yeah, I’d like to think I still am (an Oilers fan)," he said. "I kind of had to let go of that a little bit."

If Rissling feels conflicted in the battle of Alberta, imagine how Oil Kings goaltender Laurent Brossoit, a Flames draft pick, looks at this series.

"For me, I feel it’s a win-win," Brossoit said. "I’ll have support on both sides."

He’ll find out just how much support.

"I wouldn’t say (Calgary fans) would be cheering for me," he added. "I’m sure they’ll want the Hitmen to win, but I’m sure they’ll want it to be in a 1-0 type game."

"As of right now," Lowe said of his goaltender, "he’s with us and he wants to win just as bad, if not more, than the rest of us for that reason."

It’s not a stretch to say this series could come down to Brossoit and his counterpart, Driedger. They’re two of the league’s best, which is a showdown Driedger, an Ottawa Senators prospect, relishes.

"It’s going to definitely be a goaltending battle and I think in both of our minds it’s going to be fun to be motivated like that," Driedger said. "This playoffs, we’ve had nothing but phenomenal goaltenders in the other net. There’s nothing too new with that. We scored on the other two goalies and we’re going to score on Brossoit as well."

Brossoit said he’s never looked forward to a playoff series more than this one. The circumstances are certainly unique, with him playing for the junior team owned by the Oilers while maintaining his allegiance to the team that drafted him.

Asked if he wears anything with a Flames logo around the rink, and there couldn’t be a more foreign thought.

"Oh, no! God, no!" he said. "Yeah, that would be ballsy. That’s not something I’m prepared to do.

"I leave all the Flames memorabilia at home safe there where no Edmonton Oilers fans can get at it."

The sad state of both the Flames and Oilers should lend itself towards bigger crowds watching championship-calibre teams play in a familiar rivalry. When it’s Calgary versus Edmonton, nothing more needs to be said.

"I really do think that it’s going to spark another type of battle of Alberta," Rissling said.

"The Oilers and the Flames is always going to be the number one battle of Alberta," Lowe concluded. "I can definitely promise the fans it will be just as exciting, that’s for sure."

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