How Battle of Alberta has changed since ‘brutal, violent’ 1991 series

Ryan Leslie and Eric Francis chat about the history of battle of Alberta in the playoffs and status of Calgary Flames defenceman Chris Tanev.

Even the most casual of Flames fans are familiar with the footage.

In a clip that’s been shown on Hockey Night in Canada for the better part of three decades, a jubilant Theo Fleury is shown racing towards centre ice in celebration, ducking past his teammates, dropping to his knees for a series of fist pumps before rolling onto his belly and back before slamming his butt into the boards with feet in the air.

A mobbing by fellow Flames ensues.

You know the sequence.

What a generation of hockey fans likely don’t know is the scenario, the end result, or the controversy involved.

It wasn’t a series winner, nor was it necessarily popular at the time.

What it was, will forever be a delicious snapshot of the last Battle of Alberta playoff showdown.

As grainy as the video is from 31 years ago, it perfectly encapsulates the over-the-top emotion that made the provincial punch-up as legendary as it was in its heyday of the 80’s and early 90’s.

“I was really hurt during the series — I had a second-degree shoulder separation, a second-degree tear of my MCL, and I was getting shot up with Novocaine all series,” explained Fleury, now 53.

“I scored 51 goals that year but I hadn’t scored a goal in the whole series, so the pressure was mounting. I still hadn’t had an impact. The celebration was all the behind-the-scenes stuff coming out.”

As a 22-year-old, pot-stirring star of the Flames, Fleury was the prime target of the Oilers throughout a series he said was the filthiest he’d ever been part of. 

That’s quite a claim from the five-foot-six warrior who gave, and received, as much lumber as any player in league lore.

“That’s as brutal, violent as you could possibly get,” said Fleury of the series.

“We were full, baseball-swinging slashing each other, hoping to hit bone.

And that’s the god’s honest truth. That’s how crazy it was.

“This sequel should be called the Pillow Fight, not the Battle of Alberta. Because if it was exactly like it was in ’91 they’d all be in jail.”

The underdog Oilers certainly thought it was criminal that Fleury would celebrate that way on their ice, especially since the overtime goal simply evened the first round series against the defending Cup champs 3-3. 

The Oilers weren’t the only ones put off by Fleury’s celebration, as several teammates knew it wasn’t a good idea to stoke Edmonton’s fire with a Game 7 looming.

“Depends who you talk to I guess,” said Fleury’s teammate, Joel Otto, who said the 1991 series was the most physical he’d ever been part of.

 “I didn’t chase after him, if you are asking. 

“Listen, I can’t imagine the pressure on guys like Theo and Johnny (Gaudreau) to score. So, for him to be that emotional was totally understandable

“We were down 3-1 in the series and we did a good job to get back. That got us to Game 7 and we were ecstatic.”

But, as many feared, there could be payback.

“Some of us were like, ‘Theo get up, we haven’t won anything yet,’ ” said Mike Vernon, 59, who knew better from losing three of the four previous provincial wars.   

“You look at that Edmonton Oiler bench and they were watching that. 

“You don’t want to give a team a reason to hate you more or to dig down deeper. A little thing like that can set people off and you can’t put your guard down until the series is over. It was a great goal, but we still had another game to play.”

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Doug Gilmour understood both sides of the scenario. 

“First of all, I was going to try to catch him, but I said, ‘forget it,’ ” laughed GiImour, 58, whose only taste of the provincial playoff rivalry was that 1991 series.

“We didn’t say anything, but it is in the back of their mind and you don’t want to give any momentum to them.

“It wasn’t Theo’s fault, he scored a big goal and you celebrate any way you want.

“It shouldn’t have any impact on the next game, not like a headshot.”

Full credit to Fleury who opened Game 7 with three points in the first period, staking the team to a 3-0 lead at the Saddledome. 

“Yeah, the Oilers were so pissed off by my slide they were down 3-0 in the first 10 minutes of Game 7,” scoffed Fleury, whose club went on to lose 5-4 in overtime, thanks to Esa Tikkanen’s third of the game, which bounced in off the shin pad of a helmet-less Frank Musil. 

“I love that they always want to paint me as a villain.

“Hey, I’d jump right over the glass and run up the aisles, high-fiving Oilers fans as I went by if I could do it again. Isn’t it entertainment we’re selling?”

The battle has always had plenty of heart-on-their sleeve black-hatters like Fleury, thickening the plot, leading up to this, a series for today’s generation to talk about for another few decades.

No, it won’t be the same, the game has changed too much.

The storylines will be different, but the passion fuelled by two of the NHL’s loudest rinks will help spur on new legends.

“You talk about generations of people not knowing and understanding that clip of Theo sliding — look at the 5,000 fans outside the Dome in the Red Lot and the majority are probably 18 to 25 years old,” said Lanny McDonald, who had retired by 1991 but is well-versed in BOA drama.

“With the series we just went through, and just about getting past the pandemic, to be able to see this next generation of fans coming out is so cool. Hopefully they can talk about this series for the next 30 years too.”

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As the two teams shook hands, then-CBC play caller Chris Cuthbert called the 1991 edition, “one of the greatest series we’ll ever witness.”

Fleury agreed.

“That series was probably the highest level of hockey I ever played in,” he said, adding that the team’s 1989 run to the Cup wasn’t nearly as intense. 

“It was that fierce, both teams were very close.

“As a player, those are the games you want to play in. It’s the series you dream about as a kid because that’s where you make a name for yourself.

“Everybody after the game, at home and on the plane ride home, had an ice bag. That’s the price you’ve got to pay to win. It hurt.

“A series like that helps set up what is about to happen over the next two weeks. Hopefully the hype lives up to the reality.”

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