Iconic sports rivalries are built to stand the test of time.
No matter the players. No matter the coaches. No matter the standings. No matter who won the last game — or the last 10.
It’s a seed planted between two teams that can’t be uprooted. The bad blood is merely transfused, one generation to the next.
The Battle of Alberta — featuring the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames — is that kind of rivalry. Like a fine wine, it has only gotten better with age. And the latest vintage (Game 1, 9:30 ET, ESPN) could be a classic.
On opposite ends of a 300-kilometer — or 186-mile — stretch of Alberta’s provincial highway sit dueling hockey markets rife with passionate fans. They’ve been waiting more than 30 years to see the long-simmering enmity between these teams peak in a postseason series.
The time, at last, is here.
If you’re new to the Battle of Alberta — or you just need a refresher — here’s a history lesson on how one of hockey’s rancorous rivalries was written.
What is the Battle of Alberta?
It all started in 1980.
Edmonton had just joined the NHL when it merged with the World Hockey Association (WHA) in 1979. Shortly after, the NHL’s Atlanta Flames relocated to Calgary. One professional team in each of the province’s most populous hubs. Their hatred came naturally.
The early 1980s began a general feeling-out process. And it didn’t take long for Calgary and Edmonton to establish themselves among the NHL’s elite. The Oilers had Wayne Gretzky coming into his own, which included swiftly shattering every milestone known to hockey. By 1983, Edmonton was constructing a dynastic team boasting not just Gretzky but future Hockey Hall of Famers Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr and Jari Kurri. The legendary Glen Sather was behind their bench.
It’s no wonder then that the heat got turned up with Calgary, a team uninterested in playing second fiddle to anyone — least of all Edmonton.
That bitterness fueled both teams to greatness. From 1983 to ’90, the Flames and Oilers were darlings of the Campbell Conference, with eight conference titles between them (six for Edmonton, two for Calgary). And during that stretch, an Alberta-based club won six out of the eight Stanley Cup championships (one by Calgary in 1989, the other five by Edmonton in a feat of dominance unmatched in the time since).
Since that first 1980-81 campaign, Edmonton and Calgary have played each other 256 times in the regular season. Calgary holds the overall advantage, with 128 wins to Edmonton’s 110 (18 meetings ended in a tie).
So how did two excellent, championship-caliber teams come to despise each other so deeply?
Playoffs, baby. Playoffs.
How did the feud really get going?
Let’s start with how the NHL postseason was structured.
Back in the 1980s, the top four teams in each division made playoffs. Winners of the divisional rounds went on to the conference finals.
Edmonton and Calgary were both in the Smythe Division. Their most likely progression was consistently through each other at some point. From 1983 to ’91, the Oilers and Flames met in five postseason series. Edmonton won four (1983, 1984, 1988 and 1991) and went on to win two of its five Cups afterward.
Calgary topped the Oilers in 1986, via a Game 7 that would take the simmering animosity to new heights. The pivotal matchup was tied 2-2 in the third period when Oilers rookie defenseman Steve Smith — on his 23rd birthday, no less — banked a pass off Fuhr’s leg and scored an own goal. It stood as the game winner for Calgary.
The real bad energy picked up further in 1991. Edmonton led the best-of-seven series 3-2 going into Game 6, where Theo Fleury stole a pass from Messier and beat Fuhr on a breakaway to seal a 3-2 overtime win for Calgary and force Game 7. That would be the Esa Tikkanen Show, where he completed a hat trick for the Oilers in overtime that put a dagger into Calgary’s chances.
And that was the last time Edmonton would see Calgary in a postseason series. Until now.
What happened next?
After Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles in 1988, the Oilers were — understandably — not quite the same (for reasons other than just Gretzky’s departure, but that was kind of a big deal). And after Calgary’s run to the Cup in 1989, the Flames retooled — and cooled.
It would take almost a decade for either side to rebound. Calgary eventually reached another Cup Final in 2004, falling in Game 7 to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Flames continued to make regular playoff appearances until 2009, and then went six years without one. Meanwhile, Edmonton faced the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2006 Cup Final, and fell in Game 7, too. The Oilers wouldn’t be seen in the playoffs again until 2016-17.
During those years, the Oilers and Flames continued to wail on each other (even if they were no longer dominant by league standards). Calgary swept their regular season series in 2009-10 and 2014-15; Edmonton did the same in 2016-17.
Amid all of that were some star-studded lineup additions making their own mark on the rivalry:
Jordan Eberle came on board for Edmonton and scored his first NHL goal against Calgary on Oct. 10, 2010, toe-dragging through the Flames’ defense and backhanding the puck past Miikka Kiprusoff as he flew (Bobby Orr-style) into the boards. Mythical.
Connor McDavid has scored brilliant goals against basically everyone, but the ones he has potted against Calgary — recording a hat trick against the Flames in their 2017-18 season-opening tilt for example — have a little more cache than others.
But it was Calgary’s young phenom who really brought the Flames-Oilers rivalry into a new era.
Because in case you haven’t heard, Matthew Tkachuk has a bit of an edge.
What’s the latest?
It was Jan. 11, 2020. Calgary and Edmonton battling on a Saturday night. The feisty Tkachuk has his eye on Oilers tough guy Zack Kassian, landing two hits early that Kassian said afterward felt “predatory” (one did knock his helmet off). Kassian responded by grabbing Tkachuk and tossing a punch, hoping to get him engaged in a fight.
Tkachuk didn’t go for it, Kassian received a double-minor penalty for roughing and a game misconduct, and Calgary scored the winning goal on that ensuing power play.
Tkachuk was dubbed “Turtlechuk” by Oilers fans after that. Kassian got a two-game suspension for his actions. Boom. Rivalry re-explodes.
Fast-forward to Jan. 29. Kassian finally got his fight with Tkachuk in the first period, and even thanked him for it afterward.
But that wouldn’t be the week’s biggest headline out of Edmonton-Calgary. Not by a long shot.
On Feb. 1, a late-game scramble in front of Flames’ goalie Cam Talbot led him to punch Oilers’ forward Sam Gagner in the face. That started a full-blown line brawl. Talbot was tangled up with several players, but spied Edmonton netminder Mike Smith headed toward center ice. Talbot met him there, and they threw down in an impressive goalie fight for the ages:
Ironically, Talbot had played for Edmonton the season before, when Smith was playing for Calgary. The tension was real.
And it still is today. The last time Calgary met Edmonton was on March 26, and the Flames blew open a 4-4 tie to win 9-5.
That night didn’t matter much in the grand scheme of either team’s season. Now every shift, of every period, in every game of this series will carry more weight than ever before.
What’s on the line this time?
Well, one of Edmonton or Calgary are going to the Western Conference finals. That’s a big deal under regular circumstances. The fact this bid will come against each side’s most hated rival? Glorious.
The mayors of Edmonton and Calgary have a side wager going, too, honouring their counterparts of the past.
Back in 1991, those cities’ mayors — Jan Reimer and Al Duerr — said the person whose team lost would ride an ice resurfacing machine onto rival ice wearing the sweater from the other team in a properly humiliating process.
And so it was for Calgary’s Duerr, who had to pay the piper dressed in an Oilers sweater as he told the crowd, “I look terrible in these colors!”
The current mayor of Calgary, Jyoti Gondek, issued a similar challenge to Edmonton’s Amarjeet Sohi. The losing side’s councillor will attend the first council meeting after the series in their rival team’s jersey, and the mayor will do so wearing full face paint to commemorate the opposing team’s win.
It doesn’t matter who you’re cheering for; I think we all want to see that.