Battle of Alberta creating strong bonds for Oilers, Flames

The Hockey Night panel wraps up the Battle of Alberta by talking about all the goals, fights, and tempers flaring, and why it would be so exciting to see in the playoffs.

EDMONTON — The coolest thing about Saturday night in Calgary? It was like time travel, back to an age when Tim Hunter and Dave Semenko roamed the earth.

The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames took us back to 1986, while Cam Talbot and Mike Smith taught us that there is more to Canadian clichés than maple syrup and hosers in tuques.

Who knew that goalie fights could be this kind of a national unifier? A highlight that the guy in Toronto loved as much as the guy in Vancouver — even when there wasn’t a Canuck or Maple Leaf in sight?

(Loose thought: If the Swedes can put Peter Forsberg on a stamp, can’t we have a bank note with two guys in pads duking it out, instead of some old Prime Minister whose name we can never remember?)

As a new week begins, however, both teams have moved on. The Oilers play in Arizona on Tuesday night, while Calgary hosts San Jose.

But we wonder: Is Saturday night really forgotten? Or has its effect on both teams only just begun?

Here in 2020, is there still currency in fighting and brawling? Or has the emotional value left the game like some old heavyweight who once sat on the end of the bench?

Oilers winger Sam Gagner, who jabbed at that puck under Talbot that started the whole melee, immediately felt the combined wrath of Talbot and Flames captain Giordano. But when he finally came up swinging, Gagner looked around and loved what he saw.

“At that point you look at your teammates and everyone is sticking up for each other — and I’m going to stick up for myself as well. It defines your group. We answered the bell,” he said. “Those are the types of games that really bring your group together. Everyone stayed in the fight. Everyone was sticking up for each other.”

“There was a good feeling in here after this game… A gooood feeling,” added Oilers goalie Mike Smith, inside a visiting dressing room that has done more than any other room — their included — to forge Oilers teams into stronger groups than they’d been when they walked through those doors.

And here is where old school hockey violence, and the myriad of emotions therein, has always served to bond together a group of alpha males inside a hockey dressing room.

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“Some of the greatest meetings that we ever had as a hockey team, whether they were organized by management, the coaching staff or the players, all happened in Calgary,” Craig MacTavish told me for the book, “The Battle of Alberta.” “The most dramatic moments I remember in the dressing room happened in Calgary. There would be probably, three of those.”

Wow, really? Only three? Can you give us an example?

MacTavish: “I really can’t. Those things are best left in the dressing room.”

Me: “Even 30 years later? C’mon…”

MacTavish: “Especially 30 years later.”

So, what exactly is the “special sauce” that gets injected into a team when they brawl together? Well, for one, it gives players a tangible opportunity to show their teammates how deeply they are committed to the cause — and nobody can identify that more than an NHL player.

The players know. You can’t fool them.

They know what it means to watch Johnny Gaudreau shy away from physical confrontation time after time on Saturday, passing up on pucks and scoring chances in favour of personal preservation. They know — on both benches.

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They know that Talbot was giving up 25 pounds when he went out to centre ice to meet Smith, and that he went out and fought for his teammates anyhow. No player — Oilers or Flame — cares if Talbot won or lost. Only that put himself on the line for his team and his teammates, and he’s a guy you want on your team when things get tough.

Analytics be damned, that stuff is still meaningful inside sports locker rooms. Even in an NHL that has seen fighting fade into history, for the most part.

“I hate using the term war, because I was never in the military and I’ve so much respect for what those people do,” old Oilers defenceman Kevin Lowe once said. “But for us in sport, this was as close to war as we’d ever get.

“There were definitely broken bones. And if you weren’t ready to play, bad things could happen to you,” he said. “There were moments in the season where you really had to prepare (to be a champion). If we didn’t have Calgary, I guess we had the Flyers and the Islanders, but you only played them twice a year. It was in-season playoff training, and hardening and all that stuff.”

As Mark Messier said of the Flames, “Ali needed Frazier.”

And we wonder, can that dynamic ever exist again?

Ask anyone on the Flames or Oilers this morning.

They’ll all tell you they learned a lot about their teammates in that game. And for some, about themselves.


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