Marty Gelinas saw the Battle of Alberta from both sides over a number of years but there’s one memory that stands out above the rest.
On April 14, 1991 during overtime of Game 6 of the Smythe Division Semifinals, Calgary Flames forward Theo Fleury picked off a Mark Messier pass in the neutral zone and beat Edmonton Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr to tie the series at 3-3.
Gelinas was just 20 and in his third season as a left-winger with the Oilers, in the last playoff series they played against the Flames, back in 1991. There were plenty of goals, fights, and penalties in that seven-game series, but the former first-round draft pick will never forget Fleury’s celebration after he scored in OT to end Game 6.
Fleury slid on his knees across centre ice at the old Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, an iconic celebration that still makes highlights reels three decades later. For the home team Oilers that night, however, Fleury’s celebration was motivation for Game 7, which Edmonton won with an overtime goal of its own by Esa Tikkanen.
Gelinas, who now works in player development for the Flames, still remembers – 31 years later – the impact Fleury’s celebration had on his underdog Oilers team.
“I remember Theo Fleury coming in our building in Edmonton and he scored a goal in overtime and went the full length of his ice and got on his knees and celebrated,” Gelinas recalled. “You know, those things fuel up the opposite team and it fuelled us up. We went there to Calgary in Game 7…that goal [by Fleury] stuck with us.”
Gelinas, now 51, spent parts of five seasons with the Oilers (and was part of the return for Wayne Gretzky when No. 99 was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings on Aug. 9, 1988), and also scored several big goals for the Flames during their 2004 run to the Stanley Cup Final.
In the old Smythe Division, postseason Battles Of Alberta were not once-in-a-generation events, but almost an annual rite of spring. Between the 1982-83 and 1990-91 seasons, the two teams met in the playoffs five times, with the Oilers winning four of the meetings.
“I think it was more or less the cities that were excited that the two teams were always facing off back then,” Joel Otto, who was a big rugged centre for those Flames teams, told TSN.
“Having bragging rights is a big thing out here in Alberta. Unfortunately Edmonton got the better of us more often than not, but they were some memorable series and we are all looking forward to this round. It’s been a long time coming.”
In those days, the Alberta rivals would play each other up to 16 times during the regular season – and that built-up animosity would carry over into the postseason. For the now 60-year-old Otto, the physicality of those rounds stands out.
“I do remember the ‘91 playoffs was very physical,” he said. “I kept saying after the fact that I’d never been hit that hard so many times. Edmonton had a pretty big defence. That was how the game was played.”
He isn’t alone.
“There was a lot of hate involved,” former Flames goalie Mike Vernon said. “I was fortunate enough to play in the ‘86 series and it was just mayhem. Even the trainers got into it, hopping over the glass to get a stick that was thrown in the crowd. There was a lot going on. It was probably a lot more physicality.”
“It was a jungle out there,” said Gelinas.
While the games were raucous on the ice, the fans were cordial off it.
“The fans were very respectful,” Otto said. “They were awesome…the passion from the fans for the most part was the same, it’s just the stakes are higher during the playoffs.”
Vernon agreed, although he did have one intense experience involving Flames fans in Edmonton.
“One time, I made the mistake on an off-day of going to the golf course and hitting some balls on the range,” he said. “My own fans were like, ‘Shouldn’t you be practising? Shouldn’t you be doing this? Shouldn’t you be doing that?’ I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m out of here.’”
Vernon, now 59, also remembers the gamesmanship.
“The coaches don’t say much, they hide things, they say things that are off the wall, and you’re scratching your head,” he said. “It’s all about keeping your team focused in what their job is on the ice.”
Vernon, being from Calgary, felt the extra pressure of shining against the provincial rivals.
“There’s a lot of excitement about it but there’s also that pressure,” he said. “Grant Fuhr was the same way [growing up in Edmonton]. Patrick Roy played for the Montreal Canadiens and he grew up in Montreal. It adds a lot of pressure, there’s no doubt. That’s just part of the game. That’s what drives us a bit and maybe forces us to play better. Us three, we had longevity in the NHL. It also pushed us to be better players, I believe.”
Alumni from both teams will no doubt be watching as this second-round series unfolds starting Wednesday in Calgary, and a new chapter of the Battle Of Alberta is written.
“I anticipate good hockey but very physical,” Vernon said. “I think that with the two-referee system, you can’t get away with anything on the ice. I think discipline is going to be a big key in this. Teams don’t want to be in the penalty box. Both teams have great power plays…I think both teams are going to play very cautiously from that standpoint so you’ll just see good hits. You’ll see great hockey. It’s a given.”