“We hate each other. The hatred is real.”
Edmonton Oilers’ Kailer Yamamoto did not mince words when asked what he thought of the Calgary Flames rivalry after the two teams last played each other in a regular-season game in February 2020 (from ‘Battle of Alberta between Flames and Oilers turns ugly,’ Globe and Mail, 02/02/2020).
Almost exactly a year later, it’s time for the two Alberta teams to meet again. On Saturday, they will face each other in the first of ten matchups this season, and the expectations are high, to say the least, after last season’s battles. The Battle of Alberta has not been this hot since the 1980s.
Oilers vs. Flames a Rivalry Since the 1980s
In the 1980s, the two teams from Alberta were two of the best in the NHL. Between 1982-83 and 1989-90, Edmonton won five Stanley Cup titles and Calgary one. In the other two seasons, either the Oilers or the Flames advanced to the final.
Oilers legend Mark Messier clearly remembers the games against Calgary when he was interviewed about the rivalry in 2007. “I’ll always remember the rivalry with both teams vying for the Stanley Cup and how both cities were behind their respective teams. In a way, it really pushed us to limits we didn’t know we could get to,” Messier said.
There are a lot of memories from that time, not least because the two teams often met in the playoffs. In 1982-83 and 1983-84, the Oilers beat the Flames on their way to the Cup Final. But, when the teams met again in the 1985-86 season, Calgary finally defeated their rivals.
In Game 7 in the Smythe Division Final, a mistake by Edmonton defenseman Steve Smith was fatal. Smith tried to pass the puck out of his own zone, but instead, it went straight for Oilers goaltender Grant Fuhr’s skate and into the goal. The error allowed Calgary to make their first Stanley Cup Final appearance. The Oilers won the Stanley Cup again the following season, but it was another season before the teams met again in the playoffs.
After the Oilers won the first game of the 1987-88 Smythe Division Final, Game 2 went to overtime. At 7:54 of the first overtime period, Wayne Gretzky scored a shorthanded goal to give Edmonton a 2-0 lead in the series. It was a loss that Calgary did not recover from. The Oilers swept the Flames in four straight.
The games in the ’80s were tough, and the teams were often penalized. Once, Calgary and Edmonton combined for 177 penalty minutes during a preseason game, and another time, they combined for 74 penalty minutes in the first 34 seconds of a game. “At times,” former Flames goaltender Don Edwards told ESPN, “it was vicious. The hatred in the room you’d come off after a period wanting to cut some guy’s head off.”
The Battle of Alberta Is Hotter Than Ever
In recent seasons the tension was calmer. That is, until last season. The four meetings between the Oilers and Flames in 2019-20 were some of the best and most intense games of the season, mostly thanks to the quarrel between the Oilers’ Zack Kassian and the Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk.
On Jan 11, 2020, Tkachuk laid out several ugly bodychecks on Kassian. The Oilers forward eventually lost his patience and attacked Tkachuk with his fists, which resulted in a double-minor for roughing. Kassian got the most sympathy after the game, and Tkachuk was criticized by many for not fighting. But, the Flames won the game with the help of a power-play goal on that penalty.
“If he wants to react like that, we’ll take the power play, and we’ll take the game-winner, and we’ll take first place,” Tkachuk said after the game.
Kassian was suspended but was back for the next game against the Flames. With 3:25 remaining in the first period, everyone got what they were waiting for. The two players dropped the glove off a faceoff. Kassian won the fight, but Calgary again won the game. This was just the beginning of the feud. In the fourth matchup, both teams accounted for 11 goals and 102 penalty minutes, including a fight between goalies Mike Smith (Oilers) and Cam Talbot (Flames). The game ended with an 8-3 victory for Edmonton.
The Oilers and the Flames Will Meet 10 Times in 2020-21
That expectations are high for the first of ten meetings between the teams this season is no understatement. Expect these games to be close and exciting. Because the Flames and Oilers will face each other so often, the outcome of this series could determine who makes the playoffs. In the tough North Division, every point matters in the battle for the four playoff spots. The games against the Flames will be about much more than just the Oilers’ pride.
There are many questions ahead of Saturday’s game. How will Kassian and Tkachuk react to meeting again? Will Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl manage to outsmart Calgary’s Jacob Markstrom? And how will the hostility between the teams affect the game?
Hopefully, these games will be just as wild and entertaining as last season, even if no one is in the stands to witness it firsthand. Another 8-3 victory for the Oilers may be too much to hope for, but it is reassuring that Edmonton has started to score goals. They have a promising 16 goals and three straight wins in their last three games, even if the previous two wins came against the Ottawa Senators, the worst team in the league. Expectations will be high when the NHL’s most prominent rivals meet for the first time on Saturday.