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The Battle of the World





In the southern United States, where I live, football reigns supreme. In SEC country, you could make a strong argument that college football is THE sport. People down here eat, breathe, and sleep football. Thus, when a couple of teams from the region have a dominating run, it is a very big deal. When those two teams are bitter rivals, it is an even bigger deal.  That is exactly what has happened in my neighboring state of Alabama recently. Either the Alabama Crimson Tide (Roll Tide!) or the Auburn Tigers have played in six of the last seven National Championship games, with Alabama winning titles in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2015, and Auburn winning the 2010 title and finishing as runner-up in 2013.
Such accomplishments are rare, but the province of Alberta accomplished something very similar in the NHL back in the 1980s, when the Oilers won five Stanley Cups in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1990, and coming in as runners-up in 1983, and the Calgary Flames won the 1989 Cup while coming in as runners-up in 1986. In cases like these, the stakes are much higher than bragging rights merely within the borders of Alabama or Alberta, but for complete dominance of the sport itself. This then, is the story of how the Battle of Alberta became the battle for the sport of hockey.

When the Edmonton Oilers reached the Finals in 1983, it marked the first time that one of the former WHA teams had advanced that far. The series certainly did not go the way Edmonton hoped, since the Islanders won their fourth consecutive Cup in a sweep, but it set up what would be a dramatic changing of the guard the next season. The teams rematched in 1984, and the Oilers' five game win marked the end of one dynasty and the beginning of another. In fact, the Oilers did not just win the series, they dominated, outscoring the Islanders 21-12, and picking up three wins of three goals or more. The Oilers picked up another dominating win in 1985 against the Philadelphia Flyers, but hit a road block in 1986: their arch-rivals, the Calgary Flames.

The Oilers won their fifth consecutive Smythe Division title in 1985-86, in addition to winning the President's Trophy. So dominant was their performance on the season that they finished 30 points ahead of the Flames (who took second in the division). But of course, when the playoffs begin, the regular season no longer matters. When the rivals squared off in the postseason, the Flames took a hard-fought seven game win, and eventually made their way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Unfortunately for Calgary, they ran into the Montreal Canadiens and the rookie phenom goalie Patrick Roy and dropped the series in five games.

The Oilers would return to the top in 1987, but it would not be easy. They breezed through the playoffs en route to the Finals, losing only two games in the first two rounds. The Finals, however, were a much different story. The Oilers once again met the Flyers, and this time, Philly would push them to the brink. Philadelphia fought back from a 3-1 series deficit to force a seventh game, and took an early lead in game seven. The Oilers, however, bounced back to win the game and the series. An unusual feature of the series was the fact that Ron Hextall, the Flyers goalie, won the Conn Smythe Trophy despite his team's losing the series.

The 1988 Finals were fought between the Oilers and the Boston Bruins, and hold a unique distinction. The series is the only five game sweep in NHL history. The Oilers won the series 4-0 in five games. Yes, you read that correctly. With the Oilers leading the series 3-0, game four had to be called and rescheduled late in the second period with the score tied 3-3 because of a power failure in Boston Garden. Despite the cancellation, the game was still considered official, leading to the unusual distinction of the series.

The Oilers had a rematch of their 1985 series against the Flyers in 1987 and would have a rematch of their 1988 series against the Bruins in 1990, but they were not the only Alberta team that faced repeat Finals opponents in the province's run of dominance. When the Flames returned to Finals in 1989, they once again faced the Montreal Canadiens. The storyline was much different than the first meeting, as the Flames won the series 4-2. It was the end of a storybook run for not only the Flames, but for one of their co-captains, Lanny McDonald. Having earned his 1,000th point and 500th goal during the regular season of his last campaign, he finally accomplished the one goal that trumps all others: winning the Stanley Cup. The image of McDonald holding the Cup over his head is still one of the sport's most enduring moments.

Alberta had one more year of its stranglehold left. The Oilers made another trip to the Finals, but the former face of the franchise was gone. Having been traded to the Los Angeles Kings, Wayne Gretzky was no longer part of the team, and Mark Messier had taken over the captaincy. It made little difference however, as the Oilers won the series in five games. One feature of note for the series was that it was the last Finals appearance for Ray Bourque until he finally won the elusive trophy in 2001.

Since that time, each of Alberta's NHL teams have made the Finals just once (in back-to-back series, incidentally). The province's control of the sport is now long gone, but the run that the Flames and Oilers combined to create is one for the ages. In fact, I am unaware of any similar run for any state or province until Alabama's recent run in college football. It is a memory now, but for just shy of a decade, the Battle of Alberta was more than just that. It was the Battle of the World.

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