heritage classic Tanev Hyman SUNDAY TV bug

EDMONTON -- The rivalry between the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames was one of the most intense in the NHL when the two teams were perennial Stanley Cup contenders.

The Oilers and Flames had to go through each other to win championships in the 1980s, which led to legendary Stanley Cup Playoff series between the teams.

The Battle of Alberta will be renewed for the first time this season at the 2023 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium on Sunday (7 p.m. ET; TVAS, SN, TBS, MAX), the first outdoor game in a rivalry that ranks among the best in NHL history.

"It was fantastic," said Hockey Hall of Fame forward Lanny McDonald, a member of the Flames from 1981-89. "You look back at the great rivalries over the years, Montreal-Toronto, Montreal-Boston, Toronto-Detroit and that battle between the Alberta teams was so good, it was right up there.

"If you couldn't get up for a game against the Oilers, then something was wrong with you, and you needed to go play for a different team, and the same went for them. You knew it was going to be a battle from the opening draw, and especially with Bob Johnson coaching against Glen Sather, sometimes it started from the opening face-off, depending on who put who on the ice."

The Oilers and Flames played their first postseason game in the 1983 Smythe Division Final. Edmonton won the series in five games and advanced to its first Stanley Cup Final, where it was swept by the New York Islanders.

Edmonton and Calgary met in the division final again the following season, a series that went down in NHL playoff lore.

Calgary battled back from a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-7 series with a one-goal victory in Game 5 and overtime win in Game 6. The Flames led 4-3 midway through the second period in Game 7, but the Oilers rallied to win 7-4. Edmonton won the Stanley Cup for the first time with a five-game victory against the Islanders in the 1984 Final.

Three of the four losses the Oilers sustained on their run to the Cup were to the Flames. Edmonton swept the Winnipeg Jets in the best-of-5 division semifinal and Minnesota North Stars in the Campbell Conference Final.

"People ask me if I loved the Battle of Alberta and I say, 'No,'" said Hall of Fame defenseman Kevin Lowe, a member of the Oilers teams that won the Cup five times from 1984 to 1990. "In hindsight, yes, and that it was special for the fans, and it never seemed to ever let anyone down in terms of expectations, there was always something that happened. But it was difficult, it was really difficult to play those games. They were an exceptional team and in order to win you had to be on top of your game. And if you weren't on top of your game and weren't prepared, you might get your head knocked off."

The Oilers and Flames played another epic series in 1986, with Edmonton looking to win the Cup for the third consecutive season until losing Game 7 of the division final. Oilers defenseman Steve Smith banked a pass from behind his own net in off the back of goalie Grant Fuhr 5:14 into the third period to give the Flames a 3-2 lead. Calgary hung on to win the game and the series but lost the Final in five games to the Montreal Canadiens.

Best of Heritage Classic Mic'd Up

"To finally beat the Oilers in '86 and find a way to get past them, then sadly lose in the final to Montreal was tough," McDonald said. "You think because you finally slayed the dragon you're going back to the Final automatically the next year and it took us three more years to get back there. Thank God we found a way to win in '89 or they may have blown that team up."

The Flames were swept by the Oilers in the 1988 division final despite winning the Presidents' Trophy with the best record in the NHL (48-23-9). The enduring memory of the series was Gretzky scoring the overtime winner on the road in Game 2 with a slap shot from the left boards over the shoulder of goalie Mike Vernon, who is being inducted into the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2023.

"There were a lot of super-competitive players on both sides, and we had the good fortune to come out on top in every series but one in '86," Lowe said. "But even the sweep in '88, I don't even know how we did that. We just went into that series not thinking it was going to be easy, but then we swept them. I think that was the most crushing loss they had against us."

Edmonton went on to win its fourth Stanley Cup title in 1988 with a four-game sweep of the Boston Bruins.

"The sad part was that you either played them in the first round or the second round," McDonald said. "It would have been awesome to play them in the third or fourth round, especially in the fourth."

Edmonton and Calgary would play one last epic playoff series before the turn of the century, the 1991 division semifinals. The series again went to seven games and Oilers forward Esa Tikkanen scored 6:58 into overtime for a 6-5 win.

"There were so many storylines along the way," McDonald said. "You had the great rivalry between Mike Vernon and Grant Fuhr, they had tough guys, we had tough guys. They had probably six of the top 10 players in the world at that time with (Wayne) Gretzky, (Jari) Kurri, (Mark) Messier, Gretzky, (Glenn) Anderson, Paul Coffey and Fuhr."

Calgary featured Hall of Famers McDonald, Joe Mullen, Doug Gilmour, Al MacInnis, and Joe Nieuwendyk, and general manager Cliff Fletcher and Coach Johnson.

"It was unbelievable," McDonald said. "Bob Johnson and Cliff built our team to compete against the Oilers, because they knew if we could find a way to beat the Oilers, we had as good a chance as anybody winning the Cup."

Following the 1991 series, both teams went through some lean seasons and did not face each other again in the playoffs until the 2022 Western Conference Second Round, a five-game Oilers win. Calgary came close to winning its second Stanley Cup championship in 2004 but lost the Final in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Oilers made it to the 2006 Final, a seven-game loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. They were swept from the 2022 Western Conference Final by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.

"There are layers and storylines through different generations of that battle, and as a fan you want to watch games that matter and mean something to players," Oilers forward Zach Hyman said. "As a fan of hockey, it was always fun watching and now being a player in that battle, it's even more fun."

The Flames and Oilers are considered playoff contenders this season and the Heritage Classic could set the tone for the season series.

"I think most rivalries are built up in playoffs," Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse said. "That builds it when both teams are good and are competing for the same spots in the standings and competing for a spot in the playoffs.

"This is going to be a fun game. It'll be a great atmosphere because I'm sure their fans will travel really well too. It definitely adds a little juice to the game."