Hours before puck drop in the first playoff Battle of Alberta in 31 years, the mayor of the city located almost equal distance between Calgary and Edmonton was asked if Red Deer is an Oilers or Flames town.
“Without sounding too wishy-washy, it’s literally split down the middle,” Mayor Ken Johnston said over the phone on Wednesday.
“We did some very unscientific surveys this week phoning some of the jersey shops trying to get a feel for who’s buying jerseys. Even they were saying there’s a slight edge to the Oilers and then another store would say there’s a slight edge to the Flames. You talk to 10 citizens, you’re going to get four Flames, four Oilers, one Winnipeg Jet and one Vancouver (fan).”
While regional rivalries are one of the best parts of sports (and are showcased prominently in the regular season), it takes a bit of luck for that fun to carry over to the playoffs.
This year, we have a rarity in the NHL post-season. For the first time since the turn of the century, two second-round series feature in-state or in-province matchups: the Edmonton Oilers versus the Calgary Flames (the cities are about a three-hour drive apart) and the second Sunshine state series in as many years between the Florida Panthers and the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning (four hours between arenas).
And while there is far more of a hockey spotlight in Alberta, some Floridians are going to savour this moment, too.
“I’m torn. I’m on the east coast so I’m a Panthers guy, but I tell ya, both teams help my sales,” said Joe Webb, president of Duffy’s Sports Grill, which has 33 locations across Florida.
“We have more restaurants on the east coast than the west, so the longer the Panthers stay in it, the longer we’ll benefit from the sales.”
The perfect scenario, Webb chuckled, is “seven games and OT.”
In Red Deer, restaurant owners feel much the same way.
Tari Klein, general manager of the East 40th Pub, recalls how the bar used to use a piece of tape to separate Oilers and Flames fans during previous battles — all in good spirits.
This year, East 40th has specific shots for both teams: the Oil Spill (Blue Curacao and Pear Liqueur) and the Flame (Fireball and Baileys).
A lifelong Oilers fan, Klein didn’t have trouble picking a team to cheer for when the Flames faced Dallas in Game 7 last weekend for the right to meet Edmonton.
“I was rooting for the Flames, no doubt about it,” she said. “I’d rather see the (Oilers) play the Flames than play Dallas any day. It will be great.”
Brennen Wowk, owner of Bo’s Bar and Grill in Red Deer, was anticipating big business for the series. A wildly entertaining Game 1 — the Flames prevailed 9-6 Wednesday night — certainly set the tone.
“We had a lot of years where the Battle of Alberta kind of fizzled because one or the other was, for lack of a better word, kind of shitty,” he said. “Now that the teams are competitive again and obviously at a high level in the league, it gets a lot more intense and a lot more fun.”
The excitement, Mayor Johnston said, is “palpable” throughout the city and province.
In Florida, of course, hockey isn’t on the same pedestal — especially in the Miami area, where the Panthers had gone decades without being a legitimate contender (a beach in warm weather might have slightly more appeal than watching a bad hockey team).
The Miami Heat also are in the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals this year — and Webb said many of his bar locations, especially in the Miami area, would be dividing the TVs between basketball and hockey on game nights (the fact six Heat and Panthers games were scheduled for the same day this round, including Game 2 of both series on Thursday, has been a storyline in the Miami area).
Also, a healthy chunk of hockey fans in Florida grew up further north, so loyalties go in many different directions.
“Here’s the thing. They’re obviously smaller (hockey) markets, both of them,” said David Shepard, the president of the Junior Everblades hockey organization, located near the halfway mark of Miami and Tampa in Estero, Fla.
Shepard grew up in upstate New York.
“My kids grew up fans of hockey and enjoy hockey immensely, but none of them are either Panthers or Lightning fans. It’s one of those classic things where they follow the parents. My wife’s a Rangers fan and I’m a Bruins fan so the family is pretty much split down the middle,” said Shepard, whose family has made regular trips to Florida and Tampa games to support the Rangers or Bruins.
While hockey has certainly grown in the state (three members of the silver-medal winning U.S. under-18 team hail from Florida), it isn’t necessarily the big game in Florida. The manager of a sports bar in Cape Coral, Fla. (like Red Deer, almost equal distance between Tampa and Miami) acknowledged in an email that “we do not have a very large hockey base here, unfortunately.”
“I think everybody loves winners,” Webb said. “You’ve seen what’s gone on in Tampa with their team being pretty good the last several years. The Panthers have been pretty good (this season). Their draw has improved. I think this is only going to make it better. … Winning creates more fans.”
Win or lose, the Flames and Oilers won’t be lacking for fans — or competing with other sports for attention at this time of year.
For Red Deer and similar places throughout the province, the Oilers-Flames series can help in many ways.
“It’s been a very difficult time for hospitality, a very difficult time for restaurants, a very difficult time for any kind of social gathering,” Johnston said. “This is a perfect storm in a great way.”
Having lived in Calgary for 10 years, Johnston is a Flames fan.
Can Johnston wear Flames gear in public this week?
“I’ve weathered some more difficult political storms in my career. I think I’ll be OK,” laughed Johnston, who predicted an Oilers series victory before the Flames’ win on Wednesday.
“I think folks here are just so enthusiastic and anticipating a tremendous series.”