Battle of Alberta provides rare mix of NHL's old, new school

Gene Principe and Mark Spector preview the first edition of the Battle of Alberta for the 2021 NHL season.

EDMONTON — The Battle of Alberta has become hockey’s dirty little secret.

On the surface, we’ve moved past goalie fights. Hockey is better than that, here in 2021.

But when no one is around, do people hit the rewind button to catch another glimpse of Cam Talbot versus Mike Smith? You bet they do.

As a sport, we have grown past bare-knuckle fighting, head shots and most forms of hockey violence. Today’s referees are instructed to call penalties for love taps that Gordie Howe would have laughed at.

Goalie fights? Seriously? It’s 2021 — what kind of Philistine requires a goalie fight to enjoy a hockey game?

Well, to be honest, more people than you might think.

“It’s old-time hockey,” said Tyson Barrie, who is ready to break his Battle of Alberta maiden this Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada. “You don’t want to see your ‘tendy squaring up at centre every game, but if it has to happen, it’s got to happen. It went down last year and we’ll see what carries over into this year.”

The last time these two teams met was Feb. 1, 2020, an 8-3 Oilers win at the Saddledome where all hell broke loose. They were all lined up for a playoff series, the first playoff Battle since 1991, and COVID-19 cruelly robbed us of that.

On Saturday, the Flames and Oilers will meet for the first of 10 times this season. There are so many forgettable hockey games played in a given season, so many no-hitters, it speaks volumes that there isn’t a single player who can’t remember the role they played in a game that took place over a year ago.

“Definitely one I will remember,” Oilers winger Alex Chiasson said. “I was on the ice when all that went down. To be honest, I think I was on the ice for like, 30 seconds. The ref was on me and someone else was on me. Finally, I got out and I saw Bearsy (Ethan Bear) fighting (Matthew) Tkachuk. Then Smitty and Cam were going at centre ice.

“It was my 500th career game. A lot happened that night.”

You can’t manufacture this stuff. It’s organic, requiring a player like Tkachuk to provide a spark, and an opponent like Zack Kassian to be the accelerant.

Sometimes there is simply no fire. Other times, Dave Brown is starting the lawn mower.

Who knows what you’re going to get, or when it’s going to arrive?

“There’s always a history, but I think that history is built up more with you (media) guys,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett. “Our talk is always, ‘How are we going to go in there and win?’ There are things you get your team ready for tactically to win. But you know it’s going to be a hard game.

“I understand the history, and that every time we play there’s a build-up to it. That’s all well and good,” Tippett said. “But you have to go in there … and do things that allow you to win. Play with purpose. You can’t go in thinking it’s going to be some kind of spectacle.”

Calgary has lost five of their past seven games, and players have questioned their emotional readiness in a few of those games. Cue Tkachuk, who has been nothing short of a gift to a Battle of Alberta that had been dormant for years.

He is the one player — above all others — who controls the thermostat in this rivalry, and with his team scuffling along, it may be the perfect time to inject some of his shenanigans into Saturday’s tilt.

If he does, there are plenty of Oilers who will answer the bell. If he doesn’t, there is every chance just tries to collect a win — it would be their fourth straight — and quietly get out of town.

“I’ve heard about the intensity, the physicality,” new Oiler Kyle Turris was saying about the Battle. “I’ve watched it for a number of years, and now to have the opportunity to take part in is really exciting.

“I feel like, in the olden days, you had these rivalries all the time and now they’re hard to come by. The fact that this is one of the biggest ones — if not the biggest one in the NHL — it’s real exciting.”

Did you catch that? “The olden days?”

The fact remains, in our sport a true rivalry always used to come with a certain level of violence. Montreal-Quebec. Rangers-Islanders. Philadelphia-Pittsburgh. Toronto vs. anyone in the old Norris Division.

We’ve moved on from that violence, and the game today is better for it. The NHL doesn’t have to be a CTE factory to be compelling. Today’s hockey is so skilled, it can entertain all on its own — without the extracurriculars.

But, we’ll ask you this: Do you turn your head when you see a 1965 Mustang drive by?

You might not want to own one, but watching one drive down the street is still kind of cool.

As a hockey watcher, I don’t need fights every night. Don’t need them every week, or even every month.

But when the Battle of Alberta is on TV, I’m going to check in. Just ‘cause, well, you know..

Just ‘cause.

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