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It’s been years, decades actually, since there was this much hype — and this much hate — in the lead-up to an instalment of the NHL’s Battle of Alberta.
You can thank Matthew Tkachuk and Zack Kassian for that.
And what’s especially tantalizing is that the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers will clash not once but twice this week — Wednesday’s whistle-wetter at Rogers Place and Saturday’s rematch at the Saddledome.
“Hopefully, it’s a foreshadowing for the first round of playoffs, or the second round,” said Flames’ all-timer Theoren Fleury. “Because that’s when the rivalry will be back, when they meet each other in the playoffs.”
Imagine that … a possibility of seven straight spring showdowns between these provincial foes.
“Oh my god, would people love that or what?” said fellow Flames legend Lanny McDonald. “That would be a match made in hockey heaven, I can guarantee.
“Bragging rights in the regular season is one thing. But bragging rights in the playoffs? That is another whole other climb up the mountaintop.”
For the longest time, bragging rights has been just about all there was at stake between the Flames and Oilers.
Suddenly, finally, a head-to-head playoff series doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
The Alberta-based clubs hit the all-star break in a Wild Rose Wash, deadlocked with 57 points apiece in the Pacific Division standings. (The Flames had a chance to pull ahead in Tuesday’s late date with the St. Louis Blues, but the Oilers now have two games in hand.)
Most of their meetings have been fairly friendly in recent years, but the Tkachuk-Kassian feud could change that.
After all, a good rivalry needs a villain.
Or better yet, two.
Every hockey fan from Stony Plain to Strathmore, from Bruderheim to Balzac, on either side of the enemy line in Red Deer, was screaming at their flat-screen TV during a Jan. 11 edition at the Saddledome — it’s just a matter of who they were yelling at.
Ticked at Tkachuk, who didn’t miss an opportunity to take a run at the Oilers’ winger, with some former NHLers characterizing a couple of those thumps as dangerous or dirty hits?
Or cranky with Kassian, who wailed on the Flames’ all-star forward despite the fact that he wasn’t willing to drop his gloves?
A war of words followed.
Kassian was slapped with a two-game suspension.
Billboard-space was suddenly a hot commodity.
“The best line of this whole thing is when Tkachuk said to Kassian, ‘I don’t fight fourth-liners,’ and then Kassian says, ‘Well, I have 13 goals this year,’ ” Fleury said with a chuckle. “I’m thinking, ‘Man, if I was playing with McDavid … and I’m 50 years old … I would have at least 20 by now. And I can’t even skate anymore.
“I wouldn’t be bragging about having 13 goals playing with the best player in the world.”
Certainly, there’s no question what side Theo is on.
Lanny’s allegiances remain firm, too.
Both have experienced seven-game spring slugfests against the boys from a few hours north.
Both played in the glory days of the Battle of Alberta, when a double-minor for roughing would have barely raised an eyebrow.
There are famous stories about the Flames and Oilers of yesteryear sending star-studded delegations to charity golf tournaments in Red Deer and having to be seated at separate sides of the clubhouse at dinner.
“Especially during the season, you didn’t even want to make eye contact,” McDonald said. “You would walk by each other in the hall and maybe if you were that close, you had to nod your head. But there was no conversation going on, I can guarantee you. That has changed quite a bit these days because so many of those guys train together. Back when we played, you basically only trained with your own team when you came back from the summer.
“But all of a sudden when things happened with Kassian and Tkachuk, it ramps up the rivalry big-time.”
You’ll never see some of the shenanigans of the 80s and early-90s, and that goes for any on-ice rivalry, but a bit of bad blood isn’t a bad thing.
“There were very few Edmonton-Calgary games that I played in that weren’t violent and brutal and nasty,” Fleury said. “Maybe towards the end when both teams were struggling, but before that, it was war.
“You’d go stand in front of the net on the power-play and they would be breaking those double-fiberglass Kohos over your back. There would be toothpicks everywhere, and no penalty. I loved that the refs just let us play, too. They kind of knew what the game was going to be like, and they let us play and beat the crap out of each other, which was fun.
“(George) Parros would be busy if it got back to that level.”
Parros, a former fighter and now the head of the NHL’s disciplinary department, will be in attendance Wednesday at Rogers Place.
Word is, he’s planning to spend Saturday night at the Saddledome.
If the Flames and Oilers meet in their first playoff series since 1991, he might need to book an extended stay in Alberta.
As Fleury put it: “You’d have to put on your big-boy pants, I’m sure, to play in that one.”
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