You could actually hear the ESPN and NHL Network on-airs actively beginning the rigors of childbirth over the news late last night that there would be a new Battle Of Alberta. The Calgary Flames had finally achieved a showdown with their archest of rivals up Highway 2 for the first time since 1991 and only the second time since Wayne Gretzky stopped standing on their necks. The Flames did so by solving the goalie stylings of Dallas’s Jake Oettinger with an overtime goal from the insouciant Johnny Gaudreau, a.k.a. Johnny Hockey.
You see, Canadian teams playing each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a big deal in large part because there have only been seven such meetings since 2000, including three last year during the COVID-ed era of the all-Canadian Division. The other four were angst-fueled affairs at the start of the century between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators, all won by the Leafs before their current dearth of … well, anything.
But Flames-Oilers hasn’t happened in so long that it almost is a new rivalry in and of itself. Nobody under the age of 35 in either town can remember the last time they played each other except in a pointless litany of regular-season games-, and their biggest thrills since then were in introducing the Stanley Cup to the Confederacy: Calgary in 2004 to Tampa and Edmonton in 2006 to Carolina. So how do you reinflate a dormant rivalry in a country that tends to sublimate its national irritations under a veneer of relative politeness? How do you make people who live three hours away pretend they have nothing in common except a shared disdain for Canadians who live in the Pacific or Eastern time zones? Do blue and orange and red and yellow really clash?
Well, maybe by Game 3, once both teams have gotten in their minimum number of slashes, spears, and slewfoots. But that’s just fellas being fellas, Zack Kassian and Milan Lucic, that sort of thing. This series is actually one of Canada’s rare statements of hegemony in a league that has been taken over most recently by the Sun Belt and, worse yet, the Colorado Avalanche, universally regarded as the baddest badasses in the recent history of badassery. This is a series that belongs to the nation that gave us hockey, and since hockey can no longer be entrusted to the Leafs, a nation turns its lonely eyes to Alberta.
And that might be the takeaway here. Until the Flames and Oilers can recreate the things that used to make them despise each other, this is going to be more reunion than the end of a three-decade-long cease fire. Both teams have far more in common than they have to separate them, and they’ve both been paradeless since the late ’80s. They won’t even have the weird old-timey video technology and antiquarian arena lighting that made their games seem visually different than American games. And I’m pretty sure the nutty trumpeters in each town who kept playing songs between stoppages have moved on, overwhelmed by the real national anthems of Albertan hockey: recordings of half-century-old metal bands.
In short, of all the things that should provide fascination in this series—Gaudreau and Connor McDavid, Matthew Tkachuk and Leon Draisaitl, Darryl Sutter’s self-consuming face and Jay Woodrcroft’s well-honed lack of expressions, Lucic and Kassian, the well-seasoned Jacob Markstrom vs. the antediluvian Mike Smith—the most interesting ongoing development will ultimately be how these two fan bases relearn how to hate each other while remaining persistently Prairie. Some of it will just be pro-forma fans-trying-to-get-in-the-TV-shot, but eventually, these they mayl manage to recreate some version of what they used to have naturally when Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Glenn Anderson were beating Lanny McDonald, Al MacInnis, and Joel Otto year after year.
Middle-finger-powered disdain. They’d better get it all in before the winner faces Colorado, because that’s less likely to live in hatred and anticipation than it is reality and deflation.