EDMONTON — “Well, don’t be going for coffee.”
It was almost certainly the shortest, and most prescient, news conference in the history of the Battle of Alberta, back in a time when there was not so much talk, and a whole lot of action.
Edmonton Oilers’ Dave Brown had lost a fight on a Sunday night in Edmonton to a Calgary Flames call-up named Stu “The Grim Reaper” Grimson back in January of 1990. With a Tuesday game on tap in Calgary, the media gathered around Brown on Monday morning, the way they would around Zack Kassian this Tuesday in Edmonton, a full 30 years later.
But Brown, he had little to say.
“What’s going to happen on Tuesday night?” he was asked.
“Well, don’t be going for coffee,” Brown responded, perhaps the only words he spoke inside that 48-hour window, according to teammates to whom we spoke for the book “The Battle of Alberta.”
Less than five minutes into the rematch, Brown had beaten Grimson so soundly that the scribes would change his nickname to “The Grim Receiver.” Grimson’s face was so messed up and broken that roommate Marc Bureau, when he walked into Grimson’s hospital room the next day to deliver a shaving kit, took one look at his roomie and began to cry.
“I must have been really in rough shape,” Grimson recalled, “because he’s sitting in a chair beside my bed, and I’m holding his hand and patting it. I’m saying, ‘Frenchy, it’s going to be all right. I’m going to be OK.’ This hockey player, he’s weeping. Honestly, I looked like a truck had backed up over my face.”
In the here and now, with the National Hockey League’s head of Player Safety George Parro, and Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom both coming to Alberta for both games this week, we’re going to bet against any season-ending facial injuries. (Or uniform sleeves sewn as tightly as Brown’s were, then lathered down with Vaseline like an offensive lineman.)
But that doesn’t mean that the threat of violence, and the emotional juice that it lends to a hockey game, is not still OK.
“You’ve got the fire back,” winger Kassian was saying on Tuesday, the day before he and his Oilers will face the Flames and Matthew Tkachuk. “Edmonton fans are on my side. Calgary fans are on his side. He’ll get booed here, and I’ll get booed there (on Saturday).
“It’s good for the game. It’s about time we got a little passion and fire.”
It will have been a full 19 days between meetings in this rivalry, nearly three weeks since Tkachuk landed three big hits on Kassian, and Kassian returned the favour with about 10 wild, unanswered punches, earning a two-game suspension. The Oilers won both games missed by Kassian, while Tkachuk went to the All-Star Game and played on the Pacific Division team with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl that took home the cash.
Re-starting the hype on this thing has been like firing up grandpa’s old 1986 Ski-Doo on a minus-23 degree day. The media, however, has done their best (cough, cough).
“You guys are throwing twists, turns, building it up,” Kassian chuckled. “I thought, what happened on the ice, I handled it for the most part. I got punishment, and that’s that. Obviously we don’t like each other. Obviously, if Tkachuk has the puck and I can hit him clean, I’m not going to pass on it, right? But that’s the game of hockey. I don’t think anyone is going to pass on a hit — especially in the Battle of Alberta.”
The old Zack Kassian — the one that would take a dumb penalty at crucial times — could be taken advantage of in a scenario like this. That player has disappeared over the past couple of seasons however. Today he claims there is no debt to be settled with Tkachuk, who famously turtled when Kassian wanted a go in their last meeting.
“Hey, listen. I thought I got enough good shots in there,” he said. “This isn’t the 80’s. We’re not just going to line brawl. Look at the standings. It’s going to be a hard-fought, intense game. But we really have to play between the lines.
“It’s about the two points. That’s the way we’re going to stick it to them.”