Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: The Battle of Alberta (2015)

By Mark Spector

"The Battle of Alberta" - the actual games, not the book - was something of an "inside story" in the world of professional hockey in the 1980s, especially in the United States. We knew all about the Edmonton Oilers, thanks to the fabulous Wayne Gretzky and his supporting cast that was much more than a supporting cast. Names like Messier, Kurri, Anderson, Coffey and Fuhr were Hall of Famers in their own right.

Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames were just down the road in Alberta. They were obviously a very good team in those days, but they were constantly bumping up against one of the great teams in the history of hockey. Sadly for the Flames, the playoffs were intramural affairs within the division in the first couple of rounds, which meant Calgary had to go through Edmonton to get to close to the promised land.

Those games, regular season and playoff, were close to off the charts in intensity. The Oilers usually won, especially when the Flames were just building their team.Eventually, though, Calgary broke through. The catch in terms of public attention is that Edmonton and Calgary aren't major media centers, and therefore few people knew about those games.

That left the subject open for Mark Spector, attacking the rivalry in his book, "The Battle of Alberta." He does a thorough job of getting the feelings of the participants out in the open. In fact, it doesn't sound like there was a great deal of prompting.

The Flames were never going to match the Oilers' level of skill, so they built up a slightly different type of team. The roster had a bunch of college players from America who were overlooked by NHL scouts, so they had a chip on their shoulder coming into the league. Playing second-fiddle to Edmonton fit in nicely with that formula. And if that meant using players with grit to do anything possible to slow down the speedy Oilers, well, whatever worked. Neil Sheehy, who went to Harvard, became well-known in the sport for his efforts to at least slow Gretzky.

Author Mark Spector was around for much of the fun, which ran through much of the 1980s and leaked into the start of the 1990s. The Oilers and Flames were good talkers, as they say in the media, and they haven't lost the touch. Spector only needs to turn on the tape recorder, ask a question, and sit back.

He uses a different technique of organizing the book that many such efforts. Since the matchups were irregularly played, Spector opts to use a different theme for each chapter. So we read about coaches Glen Sather and Bob Johnson, Edmonton's Steve Smith and his famous "own goal" in which he took too much of the blame, the goaltenders, and so on. About the only drawback is that sometimes facts and stories get repeated. It interrupts the flow a little bit.

Still, the passion comes out on practically every page. It's great fun to read the reactions of what happened when coach Terry Crisp of Calgary opted to dress Lanny McDonald for a potential Cup-clinching game in Montreal in 1989, from the players who had to sit out the game to McDonald's thought as he scored the go-ahead goal - the last goal of his career.

Ken Dryden once said that playoff meetings developed rivalries, and there's no doubt that it worked in the case of Edmonton and Calgary. There's nothing like seven games in 10 days between two teams to develop a good-size level of emotion, year after year.

The Oilers and Flames haven't been very good too often in the last 25 years, and when one has been good, the other has been mediocre or worse. Fans from the 1980s certainly have a head start when it comes to enjoying "The Battle of Alberta," but I think most hockey followers will get the idea about what an interesting time it was - and to hope we see a renewal of the rivalry sometime relatively soon.

Four stars

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