You ever been punched square in the face?
Not pushed, or shoved up high … punched in the face.
Because that’s the closest comparison I can make to what the Edmonton-Calgary rivalry has been like over the years. That’s the image that comes to mind when I think about it.
The Battle of Alberta is like a punch that lands right on your jaw — you may or may not have seen it coming, but you better believe you’re going to be feeling it in the morning. And the next day. And the day after that.
When I was getting my feet wet in the league with Edmonton during the early ’80s, the rivalry was just starting to really heat up. From pretty much 1981 on up through 1991, the Oilers and the Flames were the best of the best in our conference, and those matchups were some of the most intense, brutal and hard-fought that I’ve ever been a part of.
Everyone remembers the offensive firepower on those teams — Gretz and Jari and Messier … Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey … Joe Nieuwendyk and Al MacInnis and Joey Mullen … and on and on — but what stands out for me more than anything else is how hard and mean the games were.
Every time we played Calgary … it would be mean and vicious.
Meaningless preseason game?
Random Saturday night matchup in March?
Mean and fun.
If the Oilers and the Flames were playing — and we played a lot back in those days — guys were going to be fighting. And everyone knew it.
I’m pretty sure it would’ve been mean at a charity game back then. And both of those teams had the enforcers to pull it off. Big Dave Semenko, Marty McSorley, Dave Brown, Tim Hunter, Nick Fotiu … those guys were legends. And they could ruin your night in an instant, that’s for sure.
But at the same time, it was different in those days in a lot of ways. Everything was taken care of out on the ice by the players. So those games were mean and nasty, but they were also more fun because everything was kind of on the players’ terms, if you know what I mean. You had guys out there on the ice who would police the game.
It wasn’t somebody in an office somewhere in New York or Toronto who policed things … it was us. The players policed the players. Even though we had some tough battles, those games were also faster and a lot of fun to play in. It was a great era to play against your bitter rival in that way.
Everything kind of took care of itself, you know?
For instance, there was definitely a lot more slashing than you see in today’s game, but you almost never saw anybody get run from behind. You knew the other guys out there … very well. And they knew you. So if you wanted to take a cheap shot at Gretzky, you did that knowing full-well that you were going to be getting up close and personal with McSorley or Semenko — and just like Gretz, those guys were very, very good at what they did … just a different skill set that’s all. There would be no maybe about it. If you did something like that, you knew you’d have to pay a price.
And I’m not talking about some fine like you’d have today, either.
A fine? Come on. Nobody cares about a fine. It’s a joke. These guys make so much money that it doesn’t even register.
But a punch in the face?
Well, that’s another thing.
If someone’s going to punch you in the face — like clean in the face, just … BAM! — that’s a price you’re going to actually feel.
That’s a whole different story.
Ian Tomlinson/Getty Images
So as much as the Oilers and the Flames disliked each other back then, you didn’t see a ton of cheap shots. It was a cleaner game.
Meaner, but cleaner … I guess you could say.
Even when brawls would happen, guys would go out and have a beer afterwards. You’d leave it all out there on the ice, but then you’d realize when it was all over how cool it was to be a part of something so intense.
You play hard — with all the blood, sweat, tears, the whole thing — then everybody goes for a beer.
And that worked great for guys like me. Because I never fought anyway.
Goalies don’t fight — or at least we didn’t back then for the most part — we socialize.
Mike Vernon and I were good friends. Same goes for Reggie Lemelin. So I wasn’t looking to fight those guys when we played the Flames. We were doing the same job, and we understood each other. We’d get together during those brawls and socialize. We kind of just hung out and enjoyed the fireworks.
It sounds weird to say it, but that’s really the way it usually went. That was sort of what we did: just talk while everyone else beat each other’s brains in.
I mean, check this out … you can see me plopped down in the background here like a big ol’ bear, just chatting it up with Reggie as Don Jackson and Jim Peplinski finish up their fight.
I really did have a front-row seat for so many of the greatest, hard-fought nights in the history of our game.
And somehow I escaped the Battle of Alberta without too much damage.
With this game on the horizon, the chatter has really picked up throughout Alberta, and that’s always fun to be a part of. But one of the things that sometimes bugs me about how people discuss this rivalry is that you’ll hear it talked about as a battle between the Oilers and the Flames.
That doesn’t do it justice.
The Battle of Alberta isn’t just a rivalry between those two NHL teams. It’s bigger than that. It’s between the city of Edmonton and the city of Calgary.
And all the people who live in both towns.
If you grew up in one of those two places, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
I was born and raised just outside of Edmonton, and ever since I was a little kid — I’m talking three years old, first-memory type stuff — I was taught not to like Calgary. You’re just raised that way, you know what I mean?
It’s a huge rivalry.
Even in kids sports, the rivalry’s there. It’s still the same. If it’s Calgary and Edmonton, it’s still going to be rough. Still mean.
David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
In fact, some people who grew up where I did will tell you that they hate Calgary.
“I hate that town,” they’ll say whenever it comes up in conversation.
Not me, though.
As far as I’m concerned, you don’t hate. You might strongly dislike, and you might want to see the other side lose every single time out, but you don’t hate. Instead you kind of just enjoy the fact that you’re lucky enough to have a rival that gets you so pumped up that you could run straight through a brick wall.
I mean, if you’re an Edmonton guy, you could have a bad year, but as long as you beat up on Calgary … it was going to be O.K. On the flip side, you could have a great year and if you played bad against Calgary … it was definitely not O.K. It was like that from the time I was a kid playing peewee hockey against teams from Calgary, and it’s still like that to this day for so many people at all levels.
It’s still more than just a game when Edmonton and Calgary get together.
Perry Nelson/USA TODAY Sports
These games mean everything to us. Still! To this day.
Of course, back when I was playing, all those battles during the regular season were really just setting the tone for the playoffs, because you knew you were going to be playing Calgary in the playoffs. It was a given. And I have to say, it’s kind of sad that we haven’t seen those postseason matchups in a while. But take my word for it: These games still matter. I don’t have to tell you this if you’re from Edmonton or Calgary, because you already know it. But for everyone else out there reading this, you have to understand….
These games mean everything to us.
To this day.
For me, these Edmonton-Calgary games take me back to the feeling I had when I was a kid growing up in Spruce Grove, Alberta. I played against teams from Calgary as a kid, and then I got to play in those NHL matchups as a professional player, and now, as I get older, I’m still a fan, still super invested.
That’s a lifelong history … and it’s pretty special.
Just how special really becomes clear on days like today.
I haven’t played in Edmonton in decades, but people still come up to me all the time and shake my hand and want to talk about specific saves I made in those knock-down-drag-out games against the Flames back in the day.
It’s almost like I have lifetime immunity … all thanks to the Battle of Alberta.