If you grow up as a hockey fan in the province of Alberta, by the time you reach a certain age or maturity as a fan, the battle lines are drawn. You’re either cheering for the Calgary Flames or the Edmonton Oilers. The two neighbouring cities engaged in a scrappy, entertaining, high-stakes rivalry throughout the 1980s, with one of the two teams representing the Campbell (now Western) Conference in eight consecutive Stanley Cup Finals from 1983 to 1990.
Then, between economic pressures, the league’s expansion and some dumb luck (and poor hockey decisions), the rivalry went from the penthouse to the outhouse. Rather than featuring a pair of the best teams in the National Hockey League duking it out for supremacy, in recent years the Battle of Alberta has featured two rebuilding teams looking to scrape together a pair of points while searching for success and identity as they traverse the road back to respectability.
The first Battle of Alberta of 2015-16 featured top Flames 2014 pick Sam Bennett, Oilers 2015 first overall pick Connor McDavid, and a pair of teams that headed into action with a just a single win between them in eight combined games – almost a microcosm of the rivalry’s recent state of affairs.
On both sides of the rivalry, there are a new generation of players focused on making a name for themselves, as well as dragging the reputation of the Battle of Alberta out of the gutter and back into the spotlight. Among them are several Alberta-born players who grew up around the provincial animosity.
“It’s always been a war,” recalls Flames blueliner Brett Kulak, born and raised in Edmonton. “It’s always been a battle out there and both teams are very competitive, and there’s always been that rivalry between the two teams.”
Oilers defenseman Griffin Reinhart grew up in West Vancouver, one of three sons of former Calgary Flames blueliner Paul Reinhart. While his father had already hung up the skates by the time he was born, and the rivalry significantly diminished by the time he became a fan of the game Reinhart took part in the WHL edition as part of the Edmonton Oil Kings, who frequently battled the Calgary Hitmen.
“Growing up my dad was already retired so it wasn’t like we were watching him play against the Oilers,” said Reinhart. “But I heard a lot of things about it. Pretty big rivalry back then, and even being in Edmonton for junior and seeing it, fans get pretty excited for it. It’s a pretty fun game to be a part of.”
“Just last night actually I was out for dinner and they were playing one of the classics from when my dad was playing the Oilers,” Reinhart added before Edmonton’s 5-2 victory over Calgary. “It’s the cool the history that goes on between them, and maybe someday we can be talking about this day.”
While Reinhart and Kulak grew up with some built-in allegiances – Kulak notes he had a Ryan Smyth Oilers jersey, for instance – Lethbridge-born Rob Klinkhammer had no such allegiances. Acquired by the Oilers last season from Pittsburgh, he noted that he had no jerseys of either Alberta club growing up, but is excited to be apart of the historical rivalry.
“It’s fun. It means a lot,” said Klinkhammer. “I watched the competitive nature of both teams growing up. It’s always fun. I think spirits are a little higher in this, it’s a fun game to play in.”
To a man, and whether they were from the region or not, players on both sides desperately want the rivalry to mean something again. On many levels, the Calgary/Edmonton battle has fallen by the wayside as both teams’ primary rivalry, particularly given that they haven’t played each other in the post-season in nearly a quarter-century. The progression of each club’s young core will hopefully bring the rivalry back to prominence, ideally before a generation of hockey fans have gone without witnessing a meaningful Battle of Alberta clash.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.