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Flames, Oilers have Alberta energized

Old rivals both in playoffs for first time since 2006

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

Alberta hockey fans may disagree over loyalties to the Calgary Flames or Edmonton Oilers but they are unified in one respect this spring.

They are energized about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it's not likely to matter if the Flames and Oilers find their way to a resumption of the Battle of Alberta in the Western Conference Second Round, though that would only add to the delirium.

It's been a long time since it was so. The last time the Flames and Oilers both qualified for the postseason was 2006.

"I hope it makes [fans] a little more pleasant in the summer," said Oilers center Mark Letestu, a native of Elk Point, Alberta. "They've been a pretty miserable bunch to talk to. This is great. Playoff hockey is what we all live for, fans, players. It's a new level of hockey."

Flames right wing Kris Versteeg, from Lethbridge, Alberta, said having the Flames and Oilers in this year's playoffs is just what the province needs.

"It's been a tough few years here having a lot of friends work here and live here," Versteeg said. "To give the people an excitement, almost an escape, for some time and give them a lot to cheer about is exciting for the entire province.

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"I know people back home are already battling. There are lots of people I know that are Oilers and Flames fans. I'll turn off my phone for those ones not cheering for the Flames right now. It's definitely a great escape for a lot of people."

Hockey Hall of Famer Lanny McDonald, the Hanna, Alberta, native who played for the Flames during the 1980s heyday of the Battle of Alberta and won the Stanley Cup with Calgary in 1989, sees this year's playoffs as a bigger spark.

"It's not only Alberta but all across Canada," said McDonald, who is the chair of the board of the Hockey Hall of Fame. "To have zero teams [from Canada] in [the playoffs] last year, now back up to five, that's fabulous, especially in Alberta.

"We're starved for that. Alberta needs a shot in the arm. Yeah, there have been some challenging years on the business side here and this helps drive the economy, hotels, restaurants. Everyone wins."

The Oilers open the first round against the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday at SAP Center (10 p.m. ET; Sportsnet, TVA Sports, USA). The Flames begin their series against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday at Honda Center (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

The recent struggles to reach the playoffs have meant difficult times for the Flames and Oilers, unlike an earlier era.

The Oilers, who won the Stanley Cup five times between 1984 and 1990, last made it in 2006, when they reached the Final but lost in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Flames qualified in 2015 but before that endured a five-season drought. Calgary reached the Final in 2004 but lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games.

The Flames and Oilers played each other five times in the playoffs between 1983 and 1991. Edmonton won four times (1983, 1984, 1988 and 1991) and Calgary once (1986), series that became known by their famous label, the Battle of Alberta.

"If you weren't up for those games, you might as well have retired," McDonald said.

His former Flames teammate Jim Peplinski speaks in a reverent voice about those series.

"The Edmonton-Calgary rivalry, depending on your age, shows the way the sport has progressed and its distribution expanded," Peplinski said. "In the '80s we had without exception the best hockey of anywhere in the League. I would challenge anybody in that debate.

"The difference was most of the world was seeing [the] Montreal [Canadiens] against [the] Quebec [Nordiques] and thinking that was a rivalry, and it was, but it didn't have the same intensity or quality of players. It didn't have the same characters, like Bob Johnson [coaching] versus Glen Sather. People didn't get to see it. There were very few doubleheader games [on Canadian TV] and when Edmonton and Calgary met in the first round, the best round was the first round and only people in Alberta saw it."

Peplinski said the intensity has lived on.

"People now come up to me who are 20 years old and they talk about the rivalry as if they were there and they weren't even born," he said. "It's really fascinating. That cultural inertia, that osmosis that takes place between fans and families and generations, it's really significant. There's a lot of good things that come out of it."

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Former defenseman Kevin Lowe experienced the joy of winning the Stanley Cup six times, five with the Oilers, but said the Battle of Alberta was not all roses.

"In hindsight, it was fun to say you were part of it but I can't say I ever looked forward to playing the Flames, ever," Lowe said. "If you gave truth serum to everyone who played in those series, nobody looked forward to it because the consequence was so extreme.

"If you didn't win, it was such a letdown. There were times we would exhale when Calgary would get knocked off and I'm sure they felt the same way when we'd get knocked off, because we didn't have to go through one another.

"Everything was on the line for the reputation of either city. From our standpoint we won more often than not but having said that, that was the only part of it, when it was over. There were some bragging rights and you didn't have to spend a summer with the ridicule, but by the time next season started it was all forgotten and we were back at each other again."

The five Calgary-Edmonton series and the ongoing rivalry are the subject of "The Battle of Alberta: The Historic Rivalry Between the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames," a book by Sportsnet's Mark Spector.

Spector said he sees a light coming out of the dark period that followed the best years of the epic rivalry, and an energy that is craved by both franchises and their fans.

"I think what people forget, especially in the [United States], is that these are one-horse towns," Spector said. "We don't have [the] NBA. We don't have MLB or even MLS. This is hockey country. The hockey team is everything to the sports fans of these towns and they've been vastly underserved, more so in Edmonton.

"It's been 10 years of not just missing the playoffs, 10 years of not very good teams a lot of the years. It's not being able to be proud of the logo.

"The Flames have been a little bit better, but not that much. It is good to keep in mind that the Battle of Alberta will never be what it once was because back in the day, there was so much violence involved, frankly, that we just don't have in the game today.

"But you can still have great hockey here, and the two towns will be on fire. The new playoff format makes it so. We need more of it. It would be great, if every year and hopefully over the next five or six years, that the Pacific Division championship is going to wind through Alberta, one way or another."

It's not only about intraprovince rivalry, Spector said.

"Now you've got both teams who can look those California teams in the eye," he said. "They can go to San Jose and win a game. Canadians, Albertans, are tired of watching a bunch of California teams beat them at their sport. It's our sport. We're supposed to be as good, if not better. Maybe those days are coming back."

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