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With plenty of talent on each side, the Battle Of Alberta is heating up

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH /

Back in the day, when hostilities were at their zenith, in those muskets-at-the-ready, Marquis-of-Queensbury-rules-be-damned days, the profane and the sublime mixed in a never-to-be-duplicated conflict.

"What the hell do you expect?" blurted elfin-sized/iron-willed winger Hakan Loob of the infamous highwater point of the Battle of Alberta.

"When two big battleships are floating in the same pond, somebody's going to start firing."

That's what's we need now, what we've been waiting for all these years since: big battleships … two of them …firing at each other.

"I think it's coming, I think we're close,'' says Flames assistant coach Martin Gelinas, a part of the enemy Oilers at one time, who vividly remembers the Battle at its apex.

"Those games were so much fun. They brought out the best in everyone. Nobody had to tell you it was Calgary up next. The games had consequences, you were both battling for something, something important.

"It's been a while, yeah.

"But you look at the young players on both sides now and that gives us all hope."

Starting tonight, back-to-back Saturdays, Flames-Oilers, second half of the Hockey Night in Canada doubleheader.

And there's buzz.

Actual buzz.


Just like the good ol' days.

Well, not just like, exactly. Those drawn-out, brawl-filled evenings are relics of a bygone era.

The game has changed exponentially since then.

No, what's needed to fully reignite the provincial ill will is not chaos, but relevance. On both sides.

In truth, the Battle of Alberta has slipped into nostalgia, something old scribblers and long-standing supporters both south and north waxed nostalgic about. To a new generation of fans in both cities, it's more ancient history lesson than living entity.

A 'Battle' in name only.

You need to scroll back to 2006 for the most recent year both the Flames and Oilers qualified for the playoffs. The last springtime they actually locked horns in a post-season skirmish, 1991.

"That's the only way it intensifies, means playing them in playoffs or in games that mean making playoffs,'' agrees Flames skipper Mark Giordano. "You've seen it a little bit between us and Vancouver the last couple years.

"But Edmonton … that would be big. For us, as players. For the fans. And, in my opinion, for the sport.

"They're always good games, don't get me wrong, but if we take care of business (Friday against New Jersey), we'll both be fighting for hopefully a divisional spot and it won't be just a game, it'll be a really important game."

For so long, the franchises alternated being good and bad, one or the other out of step, starting a new (groan) rebuild or patching holes with old material in order to keep themselves afloat.

Both pulled a Stanley Cup finals appearance out of thin air during the previous decade but those were one-offs. Hardly the heady times when whoever felt qualified to lay claim to the Cup had to go through Alberta to get there.

Yet embers remain. Allegiances stay strong.

The Versteeg household down south a ways, in Lethbridge, was a part of that.

"I know growing up, both sets of families cheered for either team,'' says 30-year-old Kris Versteeg, in his first year as a Flame. "There were always feuds, always a rivalry. It could get pretty heated.

"My friends always seemed to be split down the middle on who cheered for who. It made the games exciting. You always wanted bragging rights.

"I think it's important to rekindle that feeling, especially with what's going on in the province now economically. It gives people something to grab onto, an escape, give them some fun, something to get worked up about."

Tonight is a symbolic step in that direction.

A slender three points separates the Flames and Oil in the standings in dogged pursuit of the Pacific Division-pacesetting San Jose Sharks.

If the playoffs started tomorrow, they'd both be involved.

Nothing definitive, of course, but it's a start.

"Playing traditional rivals,'' says Calgary-born goaltender Chad Johnson, "makes big games seem even bigger. There's that extra motivation. When I was in Boston, it was always Montreal. The energy those games bring is … amazing. It's hard to describe.

"I've heard all the stories about the Battle of Alberta.

"Your parents talk of it back in its heyday - the players involved and what happened, this moment or that moment, winning or losing - and it stays with you.

"As a player, there's nothing more fun. They're historic, those games. They're the ones you dream of being a part of."

So on to tonight, 8 p.m. puck drop at Rogers Place in Edmonton.

Not yet the biggest battleships in the pond, by any means, but their size and firepower is increasing.

So start firing, already.

What's past is past. Gretzky and Gilmour, Loob and Kurri, Otto and Messier, Fuhr and Vernon, Coffey and MacInnis, Suter and Lowe, Anderson and Roberts, they built the Battle into the legend people remember with such passion and such fondness today.

Now Gaudreau and McDavid, Monahan and Draisaitl, Johnson and Talbot, Bennett and Eberle, Hamilton and Nurse are the ones entrusted with at long last pulling faded relevance out of the doldrums, giving us a new twist on an old classic.

"Rivalries grow as teams do," reminds Versteeg. "When the games matter, when a lot is at stake for both sides, when feelings are high, when you're fighting each other for something important.

"The geographical part is obviously already here, in place. So is the history.

"Hopefully, with the way we're both headed, this is just the start.

"I'm getting older. When I'm done playing, looking back, it'd be neat to say I was part of the start of it; turn on the TV and see'' - he glances around the locker room - "the young guys in here still playing important games against the Oilers."

There's much rough terrain yet to be traveled before each or both of them reach Lord Stanley's Sweet 16 clambake this April.

But that day is close at hand, if not here already.

And, fingers crossed, perhaps a playoff series between the two is in the offing, in the not-too-distant future.

Versteeg can't help but grin wistfully at the possibility.

"Can you imagine?'' he grunts happily. "How nuts would that be?"

Nuts, alright.

Crazy nuts. Wonderful nuts.

It's-About-Time nuts.

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