It’s January 22nd, 2022. The Edmonton Oilers are playing at home in the National Hockey League against the Calgary Flames. Despite both teams’ recent downturns in form, the Flames and Oilers have been in playoff contention so far all season, and both teams will look at a rivalry game as the perfect opportunity to not only regain momentum but also be the top team in the province of Alberta.
Calgary versus Edmonton is a tale of two cities that love nothing more than one-upping each other in all walks of life. Nothing is off the table for Calgary vs Edmonton, sports, railways, and even education have all been at the front of what makes this rivalry in Alberta special. This is the story, of the Battle of Alberta.
When you hear someone say “Battle of Alberta”, you would be forgiven for thinking this rivalry begins with Stanley Cup playoff battles in the ’80s between the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, but while that might be true in the world of professional ice hockey, we have to go back over a hundred years into the past to see where the rivalry truly begins between these two cities. If you look at Canada, you’ll see land that was settled in the south, with important cities settled close to the U.S border, not in Alberta however.
In Alberta, the territory of modern-day Edmonton and Calgary was home to two rival First Nations, The Cree and The Blackfoot. The Blackfoot were very protective of the southern Alberta plains and the native Buffalo that lived there, they wanted nothing to do with any white Canadian settlement into the area and had the power to keep them out. This meant any early European settlement in Alberta had to be north, The Cree were more welcoming to settlers and fur traders.
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In 1795, The Hudson Bay Company established Fort Edmonton, the fort was then later moved to what would be today downtown Edmonton. Today, Edmonton is North America’s most northern metropolitan area. Settlement in southern Alberta continued to be difficult, at the time of confederation in 1867 there was little to no Canadian presence. By the early 1880s, Calgary was a small North-West Mounted Police outpost that was barely worth thinking about.
That all changed in the mid-1880s when the Canadian Pacific Railway, which aimed to connect Canada coast to coast via the railroads stepped in. Initially, the railway was supposed to be built further north, where the more established settlement of Edmonton was, but in a twist of fate, the decision was made to build the railway south, and in 1884, Calgary was officially incorporated as a town. From fur trading and railways, a rivalry was born.
Calgary and Edmonton would quickly set themselves apart in the last 1800s and early 1900s. The railways brought mostly people of British backgrounds to Calgary to farm the vast agricultural lands around the city, they were soon joined by American ranchers coming north of the border who settled in the area, this gave Calgary a more WASP, conservative identity. Edmonton on the other hand was more ethnically diverse, while it did for sure have a British-Canadian presence, it also had very strong French Canadian and Metis populations. Edmonton was more welcoming and liberal when it came to immigration outside of Britain, in particular, the Ukrainian community in Edmonton remains strong in the city today.
By 1905, it was time for Alberta to officially become a province, and this meant the selection of a provincial capital. It was always going to be either Calgary or Edmonton, that was never in doubt. Both combined had a population of 20,000 at a time when the vast majority of the province lived in rural areas, both cities had bigger populations than Red Deer, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat combined.
In Ottawa at the time, Wilfred Laurier was Prime Minister, and his Liberal party’s values were more in line with the politics of Edmonton at the time, this made Edmonton the natural choice for the Canadian government of the time. This was a disappointment to Calgary, which had a higher population than Edmonton at the time. To make matters even worse for Calgary, Strathcona was chosen to be the location of The University of Alberta. Strathcona was a neighbouring settlement of Edmonton and effectively gave Edmonton both the status of the capital city and the university city, especially when Strathcona was amalgamated into Edmonton in 1912. Calgarians were furious, it wouldn’t be until 1966 Calgary had its own university. Edmonton was now established as the educational and political capital of Alberta. As far as Calgary was concerned there was plenty of room for resentment.
It would be in sport that the rivalry would continue to manifest. After multiple incarnations of football teams in both Calgary and Edmonton, the late 1940s was truly when the rivalry on turf began. In 1948, The Calgary Stampeders became only the second western Canadian team to win the grey cup, and the first Albertan team to win either a Stanley Cup or Grey cup. A year later, they were joined by a new team called the Edmonton Eskimos. From 1949 to 2020, this was Edmontons nickname and in 2021 it is understandably seen as problematic and inappropriate. From this point on the new nickname, the Elks will be used when talking about the Edmonton football team.
The Elks’ first ever game was on Labour day 1949 against the Stampeders, Edmonton initially struggled in their first season, but slowly improved and in 1951, made a trade with Calgary for running back Norman Kwong. Kwong was a grey cup champion with Calgary in 1948 and his trade up north to Edmonton represented a changing of the guard. In 1952, the Elks defeated the Stamps to cement themselves as best in the West for the first time. Led by Kwong amassing 3,259 rushing yards and 31 total touchdowns, Edmonton would win three successive Grey Cups between 1954-1956. The Elks were absolutely dominant in the ’50s, not only overtaking Calgary on the number of Grey Cups won, but in the marquee matchup with Calgary, the Labour day classic, Edmonton would go the entire decade undefeated in the fixture. From 1950-1961, Edmonton won every single Labour day classic.
Canadian football was reorganized into the Canadian Football League we know today and both teams struggled in the ’60s in the new CFL. In 1960, Kwong’s final season, Edmonton once again denied Calgary a place in the Grey Cup and this was the last Grey Cup final either side would play until 1968 when the Stamps would come up short against Ottawa. This would be the only decade since the 1930’s that neither Albertan team would lift a Grey Cup.
The rivalry would once again step up a gear in the 1970s. In 1971, 23 years after their last championship Calgary was once again Grey Cup champions. It was Edmonton, however, who would once again have the better of the decade. In ten labour day matchups, Edmonton would dominate with eight wins. The Elks’ good fortune would also continue in the form of a new stadium. Edmonton hosted the 1978 Commonwealth Games and the city of Edmonton permitted the Elks to be tenants of what would be and still is Western Canadas largest stadium. At the same time, Edmonton had a new quarterback, Warren Moon. Moon would go on to be a thorn in Calgarys side. Moon and the Elks defeated the stampeders in consecutive West Finals in 1978 and 1979. To further compound Calgary’s misery, The Elks head coach-quarterback tandem of Hugh Campbell and Warren Moon would go on to win five successive Grey Cups from 1978 to 1982. An unprecedented run in CFL history that by the early ’80s had truly cemented Edmonton as kings of football in Alberta. But as the ’80s went on, it was clear a new front line for the rivalry was opening up.
In 1979, the Edmonton Oilers of the WHL were admitted into the NHL, becoming the Albertan team in NHL history. In that inaugural season, they would face off against a struggling Atlanta Flames side. In 1980 the Flames left Atlanta and were relocated to Calgary, and the Battle of Alberta on ice was about to begin. For the rest of the 1980s, the National Hockey League wouldn’t know what hit it. The Flames initially had the upper out of the two teams making it to the 1981 Stanley Cup semi-final in their first season in Calgary. The rivalry was truly born in 1983 when for the first time, Calgary and Edmonton would lock horns in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The first playoff series was to be totally dominated by the Oilers, defeated the Flames four games to one, humiliating their Alberta rivals along the way with scores such as 10-2 and 9-1. Calgary was forced to watch as the Oilers went on to become the first team from Alberta to reach the Stanley Cup finals. Calgary had the chance for revenge in the 1984 playoffs against the Oilers and was able to overcome a 3-1 deficit to force a game seven in Edmonton. Again, Edmonton proved to be the team to beat as they beat Calgary 7-4 and advanced back to the Stanley Cup. This time Edmonton was able to go one better and become the first Alberta team to hoist the Stanley Cup, a feat they would go onto repeat in 1985. The objective for Calgary was clear if they wanted to achieve their own aspirations of lifting the cup, they had to beat Edmonton.
Edmonton was the most formidable team in the NHL. Their team was a star-studded cast of future Hall of Famers like Grant Fuhr, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey. The jewel in the crown though was number 99, Wayne Gretzky, AKA “The Great One”. The Edmonton side of the ’80s is often in the conversation of being the greatest hockey team of all time, and Calgary knew they would have to be at their best to usurp them.
The Flames also had a stellar team with legends such as Lanny McDonald, Al MacInnis and Mike Vernon in their roster. The 1986 playoffs would be the third time in four seasons the two would face off at this point in the season. Like 1984, Calgary brought the series to Edmonton and even held a 3-2 lead going into a home game six. But perhaps too predictively, these two would have to go to game seven. What followed in game seven would live on in Calgary legend. With the score tied, Oilers defenceman Steve Smith, on his 23rd birthday, hit a wayward pass that deflected off his own goalie Grant Fuhr for an own goal.
Calgary would go on to win the game and the series sparking scenes of jubilation in Calgary, they had finally slain the dragon and even made the Stanley Cup final that year, even though they lost the series to Montreal, the Flames now knew that they had what it took to make it.
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In 1988, the two teams again would meet in the playoffs. Edmonton was the Stanley Cup holders after their third triumph in 1987, but Calgary was the best team in the 1987-88 regular season and were the favourites going into the series. Despite this, it was a masterclass from Edmonton, the Oilers won the series 4-0 as once again, they won the Stanley Cup. By the summer of 1988, the score was four Stanley Cups for Edmonton to Calgary’s none. Something had to change. There would be a seismic change that summer. Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton’s leader in goals and assists (still to this day) and eight-time consecutive league MVP was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, Calgary knew this was their chance.
In 1989 Edmonton was eliminated before they had the chance to face Calgary in the playoffs and the Flames took advantage making it back to the Stanley Cup final to face Montreal again. This time Calgary made no mistake, and the Flames finally won the Stanley Cup, ending an unprecedented decade of Alberta dominance in the NHL as the team on top.
The rivalry was still strong in the early ’90s. Edmonton was able to rebound in 1990 and lift a fifth Stanley Cup in seven seasons, cementing themselves as one of hockeys greatest dynasties. The following season in 1991 would once again see Calgary and Edmonton meet in the playoffs, the series was a tough fought contest, and it took an overtime winner in game seven from the Oilers to separate the two sides. 1991 would prove to be the closing chapter on this era, to this day it marks the last time the Oilers and Flames would meet in the playoffs and would be the first season since 1982 neither Alberta side would make the Stanley Cup final.
The era between 1983-1991 would see Calgary and Edmonton combine for six Stanley cups, eight consecutive finals appearances, eight division titles and four president trophies awarded for having the best regular-season record. The rivalry on ice would cool down, but the legacy remains and winning the Battle of Alberta still means everything to Flames and Oilers fans today.
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The ’90s would see a renaissance for the rivalry in the CFL. In Calgary, a familiar face in Norman Kwong returned to be team president and he brought in new head coach Wally Buono. Buono’s Stamps brought back success in Calgary not seen in nearly 20 years. The Elks would beat the Stamps in the 1990 West Final, but in 1991 Calgary would beat Edmonton in the CFL playoffs for the first time since 1970 to advance to the Grey Cup.
They would return to the big game in 1992 and this time lift the Grey Cup for the first time since 1972. The rivalry in the CFL was now set to be defined by the playoffs. From 1990-2003, Calgary and Edmonton faced off in the playoffs an astonishing nine times and eleven times one of the two sides would represent the West in the Grey Cup, bringing the trophy home five times. Calgary would win the cup three times in that period, and they won the marquee Labor Day matchup eight times.
For the first time since the early ’70s, Calgary was the top sporting city in Alberta. But Edmonton did have the honour of winning the 1993 Grey Cup in Calgary’s McMahon Stadium, the perfect venue for sure for a lot of Edmontonians to win the cup.
Ice would become the centre of attention in the mid-2000s again. In 2004 the Jerome Iginla lead Calgary Flames became the first Canadian team in the 21st century to reach the Stanley Cup final, despite a heroic effort from the Flames, they fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games. Almost as if by destiny, Edmonton then made it to their own Stanley Cup final in 2006, where they would also fall just short with a 4-3 series defeat to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Calgary, however, were able to lick their wounds in the CFL, winning the 2008 Grey Cup, meanwhile, in 2006, the Elks would miss the playoff’s for the first time since 1972, bringing about the end of an unprecedented run in North American sports of 34 consecutive playoff season’s. Entering the 2010’s, the dynamic of the rivalry seemed to sway more in favour of Calgary, an unfamiliar feeling for Edmonton.
The new decade would kick off with yet another playoff game in 2011 in the West Semifinal. The Elks defeated their southern rival 34-19. That same season, Edmonton would crush Calgary 35-7 in the Labour day classic, a victory that got fonder over time as it was the only time in the 2010’s Edmonton would win the Labour day classic, their worst ever run in a decade long span in the history of the fixture.
Calgary’s chance for revenge in the playoffs came in 2014, with a new young quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell under centre. Calgary would blow away Edmonton by a score of 43-18, their largest margin of victory against the Elks in the playoffs since 1995 and they would go on to win the Grey Cup that year.
By 2015 it had been 10 years since the Elks won the Grey Cup, and the Oilers, who hadn’t made the playoffs since 2006 were languishing at the bottom of the NHL. Even more humiliating, the Flames had swept the regular-season series against the Oilers twice in 2009-10 and 2014-15, the only times it had happened in the history of the rivalry. For Edmonton, this had to change. In the summer of 2015, the Oilers drafted generational talent, Connor McDavid, with the number one pick, who alongside the previous year’s Oilers selection Leon Draisaitl has given the Oilers reason to believe and optimism not seen since the ’80s.
Back on the football field Edmonton and Calgary both finished the season 14-4, the Elks would win the tiebreaker and clinch their first West Division title since 2005. This set up what felt like an inevitable West final match-up between the two at Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton would defeat Calgary 45-31 on their way to a 14th Grey Cup championship, and a record 11th in the CFL era.
After a long drought by their standards, Edmonton was back on top, they would even have their own sweep as the Oilers went 4-0 against the Flames in 2016-17. Calgary however would have the last laugh as the decade was ending, in 2017 they defeated the Elks in the West Final before losing the Grey Cup, but came roaring back to reach the 2018 Grey Cup which was held in Edmonton, with the chance to have their own version of 1993, Most Outstanding Player Bo Levi Mitchell lead his team to a 27-16 victory over Ottawa to win the Stamps their eighth Grey Cup.
Their hockey team was also a team on the rise, winning their seventh division title in 2019 overtaking the number of NHL division titles won by Edmonton. As the 2020 playoffs loomed, it was looking like it would finally be the season the Oilers and Flames would meet again in the playoffs bringing an air of excitement to Alberta. I’m sure you know what happened next, we don’t talk about what happened next.
Edmonton and Calgary’s rivalry hasn’t always been contained to sports, the two cities enjoy a spirit of oneupmanship against each other. Edmonton is the capital, but Calgary is the more populated city and continues to grow. Calgary built western Canada’s biggest mall in 1958, Edmonton built West Edmonton Mall in 1981, still today North America’s second-largest mall. Edmonton hosted the Commonwealth Games in 1978, Calgary goes and hosts the 1988 Winter Olympics. Calgary hosts the annual Calgary Stampede rodeo festival, Edmonton hosts the Edmonton fringe, North America’s largest fringe festival.
In 2016, Edmonton opened Rodgers Place, a brand new downtown arena for the Edmonton Oilers to play in. Ever since the Calgary Flames ownership has been pushing for a new arena to be built with the help of their city. Back in the landscape of sports, the second half of 2021 has been a comforting sense of what once was. The Flames and Oilers both have playoff ambitions and cores that can go on deep playoff runs, we were robbed in 2020, but I’m sure loads of people across the NHL world will be pulling for these two to meet in the 2022 playoffs, it’s certainly possible.
Meanwhile back in the CFL Edmonton have finally won a Labour Day classic, their first since 2011 before Calgary won the rematch at Commonwealth. This brings us to the latest instalment. On October 16th, the Oilers won an entertaining game against the Flames 5-2 thanks to a Connor McDavid hat trick. In the months since that game, the Flames and Edmonton have been very impressive, having many fans reminiscing of the glory days of the ’80s where Alberta was hockeys death valley. After a COVID forced break interfered with the schedule and coincided with dips in form, the Oilers and Flames are set to go again on January 22nd at Edmonton’s Roger’s Place. There will be playoff implications on the line, but perhaps most importantly, bragging rights in the Battle of Alberta are on the line.
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