It was the sixth time in seven years an Alberta team had hoisted the Lord Stanley’s mug.
Growing up on a farm two provinces over, in St. Malo, Man., little could he have known he’d one day be considered heavy artillery in a revamped Alberta arms race between the Oilers and the Calgary Flames.
He knows it now.
“I’m quite excited to throw myself head first into the rivalry – especially the way I play,” said the 26-year-old defenceman while being unveiled to the Calgary media Monday alongside recently acquired goalie Mike Smith.
“You’re living under a rock if you haven’t watched those games and heard about the rivalry. Seeing it on Hockey Night in Canada all the time it’s going to be special to be part of.”
Days before even acquiring Hamonic in a swap with the New York Islanders that included a first- and two second-round picks heading back to Brooklyn, Flames GM Brad Treliving was open about how the stage had been set for the Battle of Alberta Part Deux.
Just as former Flames GM Cliff Fletcher focused on doing everything he could to counter Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and the stocked shelves of his Smythe Division rivals, Treliving has identified having four strong defenceman as the key to stopping Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the surging Oil.
That coach, Glen Gulutzan, can now rest easy knowing that whether his team is playing on the road or at home, in the playoffs or regular season, he won’t get caught with a mismatch when the reigning Hart Trophy winner jumps over the boards.
“If anybody has an idea to shut him down pass it along,” chuckled Treliving of McDavid.
“You can’t be focused on one guy. That’s a good team up there and he’s as good as it gets. You have to get out of your division at some point. I still think to win in this league if you can have as deep a blue line as possible it gives you the best chance.”
Another key element to stopping the beefed up Oilers, who beat Calgary all four outings last year, is having dependable goaltending, which the Flames haven’t had since Miikka Kiprusoff retired in 2013.
While Brian Elliott’s strong finish to the regular season and Chad Johnson’s season-saving relief efforts early on allowed the Flames to improve the team’s league-worst goals-against average to 14th last season (from 30th a year earlier), they struggled mightily against Edmonton.
In four losses to the Oilers the Flames allowed 21 goals.
Enter Mr. Smith.
Throw away all the stats the 35-year-old accrued as a member of the league’s worst outfit the last handful of years, as he’s now on a playoff team with a fearsome foursome in front of him the likes of which he’s never before had the luxury of playing behind.
“Wow,” said Smith when asked what his reaction was to learning Saturday Hamonic would join the fold.
“Brad mentioned it to me after I got traded that he had some other things in the works. You never know what to believe, but he put his money where his mouth is with an unbelievable player who has played some big minutes for the Isles. I’m thrilled to get a chance to play with these guys.”
And jacked up about being part of a revitalized provincial battle clearly back on track.
“Those ’80s teams are a little before my time but everyone knows what the Battle of Alberta means to this province – it’s special to be part of that rivalry,” said Smith, an NHL all-star last year who went 10-0 at the 2015 world championships where he pitched shutouts the last three games.
“Obviously we know how special a player Connor is and hopefully we have the combination to slow him down.”
Yes, the provincial chess match has begun.
While Fletcher mined the college ranks and made several trades to try catching up to the loaded Oilers, Treliving is now mirroring that sort of effort.
After all, it doesn’t take long to realize any sort of lengthy playoff run by the Flames in the next handful of years will undoubtedly require toppling the Oilers along the way.
After several years of stockpiling draft picks, the Flames are now handing them out for key pieces who can help them win now.
Comfortable with the depth of their prospects, they are now all in.
So are the Oilers.
The skirmish of Alberta is now poised to be a bona fide battle once again.