The Battle of Alberta has existed as one of the game’s most explosive rivalries since the NHL first landed in Alberta.
It was a different time in Canadian hockey in those days. The Oilers arrived first, joining the big leagues in 1979. The Flames arrived in the province a year later, moving from Atlanta to Calgary in 1980. By the mid-’80s, the two Albertan clubs were the class of the Campbell Conference, and in fact, of the league — with the Flames earning two trips to the Cup Final during Wayne Gretzky’s dynasty years in Edmonton, one of the two Albertan teams reached the Final every year for eight-straight seasons between 1983 and 1990.
With that much high-end talent collected in one province, competition between the two teams was fierce. That the era in which this talent pooled in Alberta was also one not unfamiliar with a line brawl here and there meant both clubs were also heavily stocked with muscle, and used it often. Just type in “Battle of Alberta” and “brawl” in YouTube, and take your pick of any of the ’80s-era clips that come up.
The modern era of the Battle has been far more tame, with both clubs falling into extending periods of mediocrity — long stretches of slim hopes punctuated by lone, failed Cup Final runs for either side. The presence of one of the game’s all-time great power forwards in Jarome Iginla threw some fuel onto the fire in the ’90s and 2000s, but overall, the rivalry’s more become a race to stockpile high-end offensive talent, more than anything else.
In that vein, both sides made strides, from Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle to Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan to, finally, Connor McDavid and a pair of well-stocked teams both in the mix for the post-season dance.
But two other participants in the rivalry’s current iteration have thrown a wrench into the mix. The altercation earlier this month between Matthew Tkachuk and Zack Kassian has been well-documented. As has the potential for things to take a turn towards ’80s nostalgia on Wednesday night when the Flames and Oilers finally meet again.
That being the case, with Tkachuk and Kassian seemingly on a crash-course towards another memorable chapter in the Battle of Alberta, let’s take a look back at some of the rivalry’s marquee moments up to this point.
1980: The First Dance
The first-ever meeting between the clubs came in October 1980 at Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum — a 5-3 shellacking by the Oilers, led by a two-goal performance from Dave Semenko.
It also brought the first taste of physicality to the two teams’ timeline, as Calgary’s Jim Peplinski dropped the mitts with a 19-year-old Mark Messier, earning a fighting major and an Unsportsmanlike Conduct minor for his efforts.
That was the first Edmonton instalment of the Battle. The first go-round in Calgary came a few months later, in December 1980. This time, it was the Flames getting the 5-3 win, doing so in front of the Stampede Corral faithful, with Peplinski getting the fifth tally to cap off the offensive effort.
It was in this tilt that the rivalry truly found its legs at the big-league level. It was a far less civilized meeting than Round 1, with the second-ever meeting between the two teams resulting in 211 total penalty minutes.
Four different players earned minors for leaving the bench. Five others got fighting majors, while there were 14 misconduct penalties handed out. Willi Plett played the hero for the Flames, posting a hat trick (and tying for the team lead with 12 penalty minutes) to clinch Calgary’s first win over Edmonton.
1986: The (Own) Goal
There’s no shortage of wild affairs dotted throughout the years falling between 1980 and this incident in ’86, but there were so many chaotic match-ups between the Flames and Oilers in those early years that choosing just one or two betrays another. Take in, for example, the Jan. 2 tilt in ’86 — the Flames were struggling, the Oilers flying high, and both combining for 12 fighting majors dished out during the night. The rivalry became one not founded on isolated incidents, but a continued, consistent, unending mutual dislike.
In the ’86 post-season, a different element was thrown into the mix, when Oilers defender Steve Smith potted one of the most infamous goals in Battle-of-Alberta history.
To truly understand the weight of that ’86 goal, you have to zoom out a bit. The Oilers had just reeled off two Stanley Cup wins in ’84 and ’85 (after also having gone to a Final in ’83). And they rolled to two more Cup wins in ’87 and ’88. In the lone season that broke up the streak, they found themselves in a seven-game series with none other than their pesky neighbours to the south.
The defending champs had to simply get by Calgary and then move on to claim their third straight title. Both teams traded wins back and forth for six straight games, however, and with two periods in the books in Game 7, they sat tied 2-2 heading into the final period of the series.
And then this happened:
The own goal stood as the game winner, with Calgary eliminating the reigning champions through a 3-2 win. Making matters worse, the night then-rookie Smith tallied that all-important own goal was in fact his 23rd birthday. Years of mocking cheers from Flames fans followed.
Edmonton, of course, got the Flames back by winning the Cup the very next year, and by eliminating Calgary in ’88 courtesy of a legendary Gretzky overtime slapper.
2003: MacT vs. Harvey
With both teams stuck in the mud by this point, each yet to reach their Cup Final returns a few years down the line, the Battle of Alberta spawned an odd and unexpected rivalry in 2003.
It came to a boiling point in January 2003, with Jarome Iginla’s squad meeting Jason Smith’s at the Saddledome. Five seconds into the game, the tension was already overflowing as Edmonton’s Shawn Horcoff and Calgary’s Chris Clark dropped the gloves. Before the first period was up, then-Oiler Craig Berube had thrown down with rival Oiler Scott Ferguson, too.
Calgary went on to build up a four-goal lead by the game’s midway point, getting a pair of goals from Craig Conroy and one apiece from Dave Lowry and Chris Drury. The Flames faithful did everything they could do make the Oilers aware of the direction the tilt was heading, even down to their mascot, Harvey the Hound, who climbed up to lean over the glass behind the Oilers’ bench to mock the Albertan rivals.
Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish was eventually so irked he reached up and ripped out the Flames mascot’s tongue, tossing it into the crowd with an eyeroll:
The incident sparked a comeback of sorts, with tallies coming from from Brian Swanson, Marty Reasoner and Mike York, nearly enough to even things up, but not quite.
Of course, aside from odd coach-mascot quarrel, the presence of an in-his-prime Iginla during this stretch added plenty of fuel to the rivalry’s fire, too.
A tilt on Oct. 25, 2003 exemplified the type of clashes that took place between the two clubs back then. Six pairs of combatants squared off on that particular night, featuring all the names of the era that fans in Calgary and Edmonton would be all-too-familiar with: Krzysztof Oliwa vs. Georges Laraque, Jarome Iginla vs. Cory Cross, Dave Lowry vs. Jason Chimera, Chris Clark vs. Ethan Moreau, Shean Donovan vs. Scott Ferguson and (with each lining up for their second bout of the night) Chris Clark vs. Scott Ferguson.
Calgary won 4-2. Iginla chipped in with a Gordie Howe hat trick (a goal, assist and fight) plus an extra helper — an apt representation of how things tended to go during his reign in Alberta.
2010: Enter, Eberle
After the Iginla years faded into a pointedly uninspired stretch for both clubs, the Oilers found a bit of life in 2010 courtesy of a pair of young high-flyers in No. 1 pick Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, picked a few years prior and deemed ready for The Show.
By this point, the game had already begun its swing towards speed and dynamic skill, the post-lockout rules granting players like Hall and Eberle the room to flex their offensive muscle.
The Flames weren’t too eager to find out what that looked like as, aside from a trio of veterans — Iginla, Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen — who could still put up numbers, the team was clearly headed towards some lean years.
Unfortunately for them, Game 1 of the season was Flames vs. Oilers at Rexall Place.
The Oilers opened the scoring midway through the first courtesy of Gilbert Brule. Then, a minute-and-a-half into the third, against hallowed Flames netminder Miikka Kiprusoff, Eberle — in his first NHL game — announced his arrival:
It was a thoroughly embarrassing sight for Flames fans — Kiprusoff laid out while Eberle gracefully glided around everyone in sight to score about as spectacular a first goal as anyone has. It was all the spark Calgary needed to develop a hefty dislike for the Oilers’ new young guns — made worse by the fact that Calgary couldn’t respond. Ales Hemsky scored a third for Edmonton and Eberle set up a fourth for Shawn Horcoff as the Oil opened the season with a shutout win over their rivals.
The Flames were eventually able to return the favour once Johnny Gaudreau arrived in Calgary a few years down the line, of course — the then-rookie got his own introductory moment against Edmonton in December 2014, sniping two past the Oilers in a span of 16 seconds to help lift Calgary to a 4-1 win.
2015: The Next One
If there’s one aspect of the game that did the most to fuel the modern-era Battle of Alberta, it might just be the draft lottery. The influx of No. 1 picks into the Oilers roster — Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov back-to-back-to-back, followed by the jackpot in Connor McDavid a few years later — undoubtedly stung those a few hours’ south who cheered for a Flames franchise that has to date earned exactly zero first-overall picks.
No. 97 was the one that truly pushed Flames fans over the edge, though, with Edmonton landing the player of the generation due to what was seen as an inability to find success with the first batch of young, elite stars.
And five games into McDavid’s rookie year, the Oilers phenom turned Flames fans’ nightmares into reality.
Looking at the offensive sums McDavid has since amassed on the regular, it’s tough to think back to a time when it was unclear how exactly his offensive style would acclimate to the big leagues. That mystery didn’t last long. Fittingly, the future Oilers captain posted his first-ever multi-point game in the NHL against — who else — the Flames.
With the first four games of his career bringing a single goal, a tipped shot against the Stars that hadn’t quite seemed a McDavid-esque tally, No. 97 found his game in tilt No. 5. Suiting up for his first Battle of Alberta match-up, the young phenom went off, putting up two goals and an assist in a 5-2 stomping of the Flames at the Saddledome. A hint of what was to come in the rivalry’s next chapter.