The Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers have faced each other in hockey battle for four decades. The Battle of Alberta has seen its share of classic games.
The teams have usually peaked, or not, at the same time. From the heydays of Stanley Cup victories in the 1980’s to today’s struggling teams, the Flames and the Oilers have fought for supremacy with pretty even results.
Death Valley in the NHL
Edmonton joined the NHL as one of the four WHA teams back in 1979. A year later, the Flames arrived via Atlanta and the war was on. The first season 1980-81 saw the Flames being the dominant squad thanks to a 92 point season and a berth in the Final Four in the playoffs. But the Oilers soon passed the Flames as Wayne Gretzky and company began to mature into Cup contenders. In fact, the two teams were the best in the league for most of the 1980’s and into the 1990’s.
During that era, Alberta was known as Death Valley for opposition. It was difficult for any visiting team to win against the powerhouses in Calgary and Edmonton. The amazing talent on both teams was too much for most visitors to claim victories while visiting Western Canada.
In the 1980’s, Calgary and Edmonton built their rosters filled with future Hall of Famers with six Oilers Gretzky, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr, Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri and five Flames’ Lanny McDonald, Joe Nieuwendyk, Doug Gilmour, Joe Mullen and Al MacInnis. Both teams filled the rest of their rosters with the kind of players needed to win, an Esa Tikkanen in Edmonton and a Joel Otto to win faceoffs in Calgary.
The 1980’s: The Playoff Battles
Between 1983 and 1990, either team made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, both lifting the Cup. Their playoff battles were considered the best of all playoff series. Certainly the most bitter ones. These two teams didn’t like each other much and knew the other represented the biggest challenge in the regular season or in the playoffs.
The Flames currently leads the regular season 97-93-18 while the Oilers have won 4 of 5 playoff series, including three exciting seven-game series. Edmonton was that dominant between 1983 and 1991 probably preventing Calgary from experiencing more success in that time span. The provincial rivals first met in the playoffs in 1983 where the Oilers won in five games. The next spring, the two teams went to a seventh game before Edmonton prevailed en route to its first Stanley Cup Championship. Two years later, another seven game series ended in favor of Calgary making its way to a first Stanley Cup Final appearance. In 1988, the Flames won the President’s Trophy for most points in the regular season but failed to show up against the Oilers in the second round losing in a sweep as Edmonton won its fourth Stanley Cup that spring. Then, Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles.
In 1989, the Flames won the President’s Cup yet again and finally won its first Stanley Cup title. The Oilers ironically lost in the first round to Gretzky’s Kings. In the spring of 1991, the provincial rivals met in a thrilling seven game series that featured two exciting overtime games to end the series in favor of the Oilers. That was the last time Calgary and Edmonton battled in the playoffs.
The 1990’s: Decline of Empires
Unfortunately, the fortunes of both teams began to slide the very next year. Flames General manager Cliff Fletcher moved on to take over the Toronto Maple Leafs and quickly pulled the trade on the worst deal ever in Flames’ history that saw Gilmour and four solid players to Toronto for a bag of pucks and five bad players, including one of the biggest overrated players ever, Gary Leeman. Calgary missed the playoffs in 1992. The Flames rebounded to make the playoffs the next four seasons between 1993 and 1996 but lost in the first round each time.
Meanwhile, Edmonton also was losing many key players in trades such as Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri, and Glenn Anderson. Yet, surprisingly the Oilers had a good season and made it to the Final Four in the playoffs. In 1993, Edmonton missed the playoffs for the first time ever and did so for the next four years.
So in the mid-1990’s, the Flames made the playoffs but failed to get past the first round while the Oilers played golf early. Then, the reversed happened: Calgary began a long seven year stretch without post season fun beginning in 1997 while Edmonton returned to the playoffs in 1997. The Oilers would make the post season for the next five years but never getting past the second round.
It was at this time that the threat of relocation for both teams reached its apex. The Canadian dollar was at an all-time low and Quebec and Winnipeg had already lost their teams. Somehow Albertans were able to keep both of their teams through the hard times. The teams failed to make the playoffs in 2002 and things looked grim.
The 2000’s: Surprise Runs
However, a change in fortunes was about to occur. In the spring of 2004 and 2006, the provincial rivals had surprising success, especially in the playoffs. In 2004, the Flames defeated all three divisional champions en route to the Stanley Cup Final where they barely lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a thrilling seven game series. The emergence of captain Jarome Iginla and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff led the Flames to a near victory.
After the season long lockout in 2005, both Alberta teams made the playoffs in the same year for the first time since their very last playoff series against each other in 1991. While Calgary lost to Anaheim in a fierce seven game series (the Ducks would win the Cup the following year), Edmonton made a surprise run to the Finals where they lost in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes.
But that was it for the Oilers. They haven’t made it to the post season since 2006. Meanwhile the Flames underachieved by losing in the first round four consecutive years from 2006 to 2009.
The 2010’s: Battle of Draft Picks
Neither team has yet to make the post season dance in this decade. And it will not change this year as the provincial rivals are in a battle……for last place in the Western Conference. Both teams are expected to finish in the bottom five in the league. Edmonton has been rebuilding for a while and seems unable to move forward despite drafting high for many years, including three number one picks. Calgary finally decided to let Iginla, the face of the franchise, go last year and begin rebuilding as well.
When will the Alberta rivals change their fortunes and return to the post-season? When will they meet in the playoffs again? More patience is required by fans in Alberta as both teams have young players slowly developing but more is needed to become competitive again. The Flames have some solid prospects, including Sean Monahan, but are missing talent in their top six forwards, top four defensemen and a top goaltender to replace the retired Kiprusoff. The Oilers have several talented forwards, including Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but need help on defense and a more reliable number one goaltender.
Hopefully in two or three years, the fortunes of both teams will turn around and give new meaning to the Battle of Alberta.
Mario now covers the Los Angeles Kings and writes other hockey features. He is an experienced journalist who has covered sports and entertainment in daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and online, including thedigitalbits.com/columns/inside-cinema. He is also the co-creator of The Gaffoos, www.gaffoos.com