It was the best of times in Calgary last spring. The Flames were Stanley Cup champions at last. It was the worst of times in Edmonton. Wayne Gretzky was gone, and so was the Cup. Thus did the plot of this tale of two cities grow thicker.
Ever since oil was discovered in Alberta's Turner Valley in 1937, the people of these two boomtowns have thought crude thoughts about one another. Blue-collar Edmonton, 160 miles north of Calgary, houses the provincial government. White-collar Calgary is the corporate center. Edmonton has the lordly Canadian Football League Eskimos; Calgary, the lowly Stampeders. Calgary has its outdoor Stampede each July; Edmonton, its Klondike Days. Calgary was home to the '88 Winter Olympics. But above all, Edmonton had Gretzky, and Calgary did not.
In 1986, when the Flames beat the Oilers in the Smythe Division finals—the only interruption in Edmonton's string of four Cups in five years starting in 1983-84—Calgary partied all night. Edmonton and Gretzky had at last been defeated. Never mind that the Flames went on to lose to the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals. By contrast, when the Flames beat the Canadiens for the Cup last season, the celebration in Calgary was polite. The Oilers had traded Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings and then lost to them in the first round of the playoffs, thereby denying Calgary the exquisite pleasure of upending Edmonton again.
Now two of the most bitter rivals in the NHL are at it once more. They're barreling toward another late-April matchup in the Smythe finals, and with no super teams having emerged in the NHL this season, the Cup may well hang in the balance. Gretzky's ghost, which rattled around in the Oilers' attic for a full season, appears to have vacated the premises. The Flames' 10-4 win over the Oilers in their penultimate head-to-head meeting of the regular season on Sunday night in Calgary evened their season series at 3-3-1. It also left Calgary one point ahead of Edmonton and four points behind the Boston Bruins, the league's overall leader.
"We played an unbelievable game," said Flames left wing Gary Roberts. Because of injuries to Grant Fuhr and Bill Ranford, the Oilers were down to Pokey Reddick, their third-string goalie. But the Flames' victory reaffirmed that they have the most talent in the league and must be considered a strong favorite to repeat as champions.
Early this season, the Flames figured to be both deep enough to withstand the loss of four veteran role players and mature enough not to become complacent. Three of those who departed—wingers Lanny McDonald and Jim Peplinski, both of whom retired, and defenseman Rob Ramage, who was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs—didn't get much ice time in 1988-89, but they did provide Calgary with leadership. Now the only voice being heard in the locker room is coach Terry Crisp's—and it's not a sound the Flames like to hear.
Crisp's incessant berating of his players may have helped them win the Cup last season, but his abuse has put a number of them on the edge of desperation this time around. However, when the players are asked about Crisp, they tap-dance around the question. "The coach doesn't have to be well-liked to be effective," says defenseman Jamie Macoun. "We have a good bunch, and we pick each other up when one of us gets picked on."
The Flames' unusually long season—the NHL required them to play six exhibition games in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia in early September, a series some of them could have done without—undoubtedly weakened the team during the first half of 1989-90. At least two players came back from the U.S.S.R. with viruses, and Calgary's heavy road schedule the first two months made matters even worse, as did the decline of veteran right wing Joey Mullen, a 51-goal scorer in 1988-89, who at week's end had only 27 goals.
But after the Flames went unbeaten during an eight-game stretch from Jan. 14 to Feb. 1, they again looked like the team to beat. Then they went 3-5 and looked highly vulnerable. "We've had trouble getting our intensity up to where it allows us to be great instead of average," says goaltender Rick Wamsley. Average would be the best way to describe the play of Calgary's other netminder, Mike Vernon, one of the heroes of last season's playoffs. And worried would be the best way to characterize the Flames' mood.
Sunday night, right wing Sergei Makarov had two goals and five assists for seven points, a Calgary record, and Mullen scored one goal, giving him a total of four in his last two games. If Makarov, who had been one exhausted-looking Soviet, and Mullen, 33, keep percolating, the Flames will have more offensive firepower than Edmonton. But Calgary is not as physical as the Oilers, which no doubt would be a factor if a playoff series between the two went seven games. "They are much more of a finesse team than they were a year ago," says John Muckler, Edmonton's first-year coach. "We are as physical as any team in the NHL—and I think they fear that."
For the Oilers, it's delightful to be so loathsome again. Time, the great healer, has worked wonders on players who resented the Gretzky trade. And general manager Glen Sather, the old sharpie, has worked plunders. Sather, who coached the Oilers in each of their glory years, hasn't made the team as good as it once was, but he has brought in young and talented new bodies. Equally important are those old bodies who now have new heads.
When owner Peter Pocklington traded Gretzky in August 1988, a number of veteran Oilers, including center Mark Messier, right wing Jari Kurri, defenseman Kevin Lowe, Fuhr and right wing Glenn Anderson felt a deep sense of betrayal. All had passed up free agency to stay with a team that had a chance to be the greatest of all time, provided that Gretzky remained the heart of it. "It took the whole season [to get over the trade]," says Muckler, Sather's assistant at the time. "We had to see Wayne's happiness after the seventh game of the playoffs and realize he was happy because he had beaten us. Only then could we really start to look forward again. It's interesting. Wayne got a huge ovation when he broke Gordie Howe's record [to become the NHL's alltime leading scorer on Oct. 15] here in Edmonton, and he should have. But he hasn't been cheered since then in Edmonton. We never hear his name anymore."
Center Jimmy Carson, the core of the two-player, three-draft-choice and cash-rich package the Oilers got for Gretzky, no longer plays for Edmonton. His being traded to the Detroit Red Wings last November probably was best for both him and the Oilers, considering the sense of inadequacy Carson says he felt trying to fill the Great One's shoes.
When Carson forced Edmonton to trade him by walking out on the team on Oct. 14, he did the Oilers a favor. Sather's four-for-two deal, which brought left wings Adam Graves and Petr Klima, center Joe Murphy and defenseman Jeff Sharpies to Edmonton for Carson and right wing Kevin McClelland, added depth and speed. Sather gambled on Murphy, who had performed poorly since the Red Wings made him the first choice in the 1986 NHL draft, and Klima, who has three drunken-driving convictions. "We filled three positions [Sharpies went to the minors] and upgraded our speed by 25 to 30 percent," says Muckler. "And not one player was over 25 years old."
Klima, benched for four games by Muckler in January because of uninspired play, attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and is starting to score. Murphy, who never had the scoring ability to justify his selection as the league's No. 1 draft pick, seems to be responding to more realistic expectations in Edmonton. Both players, labeled as lazy in Detroit, are getting with the Oilers' program, which features discipline, hard checking and practices conducted at game tempo.
This revved-up style is exemplified by Messier, who has had an outstanding season at center and has emerged from the shadow of his good friend Gretzky. "It's like when Wayne was here, you knew that if he was on that night, you'd win," says center Craig MacTavish. "That's how it is with Mess this year."
When Messier, 29, was only the greatest second-best player a team could have, he would answer questions about his status stoically. "I thought there wasn't an award that I could win," he says. "Gretz would always get the MVP or the scoring championship. I wasn't exactly qualified for the Lady Byng [most gentlemanly player]. I thought I got all the recognition I could ever hope for by winning four Stanley Cups."
Now, however, Messier is one of two leading candidates—the other is Boston defenseman Ray Bourque—to win the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP. The sight of Messier, 210 pounds of raw speed and power, gathering himself in his own end, flying into the opposition zone and firing a bullet toward the far corner of the net might be the most compelling sight in hockey.
On the other hand, the Oilers have not come close to replacing the unparalleled offensive talents of defenseman Paul Coffey, whom they traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in November 1987 after a contract dispute. Edmonton's power play is only average. One missing star who may soon return, though, is Fuhr, the best goalie in the game. He has resumed workouts after undergoing shoulder surgery on Dec. 27. If he can't scrape off the rust in time for the playoffs, Ranford, who has carried the team grandly in Fuhr's absence, might be good enough to give the Oilers a chance to win it all when he comes back from a sprained ankle.
Winning it all, of course, means beating the other team from Alberta. Who else is there? "There are people here who stop you on the street and say, 'As long as you beat the Oilers...,' " says Macoun. "I played at Ohio State. Facing Michigan was in jest compared to this."
The last time the Oilers and the Flames went into a series in which Edmonton had a chance to play the spoiler was in 1988. Calgary had overtaken the defending champion Oilers as the NHL's points leader, but Gretzky led Edmonton to a shocking sweep. The Great One later said that he never felt better after a victory, including those that won Stanley Cups. Here, it seems, we go again.