Why the Battle of Alberta isn’t what it used to be

It isn’t just because the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers finished eighth and twelfth respectively last season, instead of both being true perennial Stanley Cup contenders.

It isn’t just because these two clubs haven’t clashed in the playoffs since 1991, instead of meeting almost annually in the Smythe Division playoffs.

It’s because a rivalry is defined by names and faces, not just by jerseys.

Sure, the Calgary and Edmonton fans and media still love to talk it up.

But how can you expect players to build up either amazing internal team chemistry or relentless dislike for a rival club, the kind we witnessed in the 1980’s, when constant roster turnover is the norm today?

Let’s use a six-year window to illustrate this point. In 1983-84, the Oilers won their first Cup, and in 1988-89, Calgary did the same. In addition, during that period, one of these clubs either appeared in or won the Cup finals each year.

Look at how many players suited up at least once for their respective clubs in each of those seasons, and for no other NHL club:

1983-84 to 1988-89

Calgary Flames (7)

Tim Hunter
Hakan Loob
Al MacInnis
Jamie Macoun
Lanny McDonald
Colin Patterson
Jim Peplinski

Edmonton Oilers (7)

Glenn Anderson
Grant Fuhr
Randy Gregg
Charlie Huddy
Jari Kurri
Kevin Lowe
Mark Messier

Now compare that to the most recent six-year span (covering but not counting the 2004-05 lockout):

2001-02 to 2006-07

Calgary Flames (2)

Jarome Iginla
Robyn Regehr

Edmonton Oilers (4)

Shawn Horcoff
Ethan Moreau
Jason Smith
Steve Staios

Of course, those 80’s clubs would have seen more turnover if they hadn’t been so successful. But at the same time, their success was at least partly due to core stability, and seeing mostly the same guys go to war year after year was a huge part of what made it all so memorable.

Under the salary cap system, it’s become far more challenging to retain players long-term and build up that level of familiarity.

Salary dumping at the trade deadline is not going away. But in the next round of CBA negotiations, it would be wise for the NHL to press for an increase to the minimum age or length of league service when a player can become an unrestricted free agent (as of 2008, it’ll be 27 years old or seven years of league service), in exchange for other concessions.

Not just for the Battle of Alberta, but for all league rivalries, it’s better when the familiarity factor dominates.

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