The old Crown and Anchor bar in Red Deer, Alta., was famous for its line drawn down the middle when hosting hockey fans during the fierce Battle of Alberta playoff games of the late-1980s.
Calgary Flames fans sat on one side. Edmonton Oilers fans were relegated to the other.
NHL allegiances are split in the city of just over 100,000 people that sits within a kilometre of the exact halfway point of the 300-kilometre drive along Hwy. 2 between Calgary and Edmonton.
The Flames host the Oilers in Game 1 in the second round of the NHL playoffs on Wednesday, in a Battle of Alberta of proportions not seen in decades.
“To see both fan bases totally engaged in playoffs is something that has just never happened in a lot of people’s life times who are under the age of 40,” said Merrick Sutter, senior vice-president of the Red Deer Rebels, and nephew of Flames coach Darryl Sutter. “We see it every day in Red Deer, just the sheer nature of being exactly in the middle.”
While it marks the sixth time the two teams have battled in the NHL post-season, it’s the first time in 31 years. The Oilers own a 4-1 series record.
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The Rebels tweeted, tongue in cheek, on Monday: “Pray for Red Deer.”
Red Deer actually wins, no matter which team emerges victorious, said Mayor Ken Johnston.
“Really, every city from Fort McMurray in the north to Lethbridge in the south is going to benefit from the series, the bars, the restaurants, the hospitality industry, the ability for people to come together and socialize, and it couldn’t come at a better time from that perspective. People are just so eager to get out and be in person.
The Mayor’s allegiances, he wasn’t afraid to admit, are with the Flames. He worked in Calgary during the team’s heyday of the late ’80s, when they made the Stanley Cup final in ’86 and won it all in ’89.
He has a Calgary jersey and a hat signed by Flames legend Lanny McDonald.
“Being a good mayor, I also have a little Oilers fanfare to wear from time to time,” he added with a laugh.
Sutter said allegiances in the Battle of Alberta have generational roots. His, of course, were forged in his family’s long history with the Flames. His dad Brent, now owner, president and GM of the Rebels, coached the Flames for three seasons, and uncle Darryl’s first coaching stint in Calgary was in 2003.
“Not many can understand, but there’s not very many circumstances where you have two franchises with such a longstanding rivalry,” he said. “This goes back to grandparents and parents, back in the ’80s and whatnot. It’s embedded. Now, to be able to reignite it is special, but to me it’s really about the younger people who have never seen that rivalry.”
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Troy Gillard, who does play-by-play of Rebels games, said Red Deer has unique connections to both teams — although he noted he wore a Flames polo to the office on Monday. There’s the Rebels’ ties to the Sutter family. But he believes the Oilers saw a surge of new fans when the club drafted Rebels centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins first overall in 2011. He was the first Rebel to go No. 1 in the draft.
The Oilers also have defenceman Kris Russell, who’s from nearby Caroline, Alta., and had Red Deer native Colton Sceviour before waiving him in late-January.
“Even here at the Rebels, we’re split pretty much 50/50. It’s gonna be a lot of fun around here the next couple weeks,” Gillard said.
These playoffs are the first held in full arenas in Canada since the COVID-19 began. Red Deer was slammed by the Omicron variant this past winter that saw the world junior championships there cancelled four days after it started.
“That Game 7 in overtime was as close to a return to normalcy as you’re going to find,” said Sutter, who was in Calgary on Sunday night for the Flames’ 3-2 OT thriller over Dallas.
Red Deer bars are buzzing with anticipation after a couple of years of hard times amid the pandemic.
“We’re all very very excited, it’s been a long time to have this kind of thing happen,” said Brennen Wowk, owner of 400-seat Bo’s Bar & Stage. “Staff will be in jerseys of their choice, (he’ll be in his No. 99 Wayne Gretzky Oilers jersey), we’ll be pouring lots of beer, and have the volume on as loud as it can go. As much excitement we can put into this room, we’re going to put into this room.”
Dallas Gaume hopes Alberta’s teams in the post-season will see hockey registration numbers in Red Deer return to pre-pandemic numbers.
“A lot of eyes are going to be on the province in the next two weeks, and I really think we’re going to get some growth out of this,” said Gaume, the GM of the Red Deer Minor Hockey Association.
There was no season in 2020-21 due to COVID-19, and then number of returning players dropped by 7.5 per cent this past winter. Gaume believes it’s a combination of issues, such as players needing to be vaccinated to enter arenas and players finding other winter activities during the lockdown.
There’s no love lost between the two squads, he said, and said Canada vs. the U.S. in women’s hockey would be an adequate comparison.
“I know that’s an extremely strong rivalry, with lots of dislike for one another,” Gaume said. “I think the same could be said with these two teams. I know with a lot of people, if you like the Oilers, you generally hate the Flames and the same the other way. You can’t like both.”
If he had to pick a winner?
“I think the Flames are the better team. Doesn’t necessarily mean they win the series. How’s that for my sitting-on-the-fence prediction?” he said with a laugh.
Game 2 is Friday in Calgary before the series heads north to Edmonton for Games 3 and 4. The series winner meets either St. Louis or Colorado in the Western Conference Final.
“One of the Alberta teams is going to be playing for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final,” Gillard marvelled. “It’s going to be heartbreaking for whichever team loses in Round 2, but for whichever team moves on, how exciting is that?”