Review of The Battle of Alberta

Spector, Mark. The Battle of Alberta: The Historic Rivalry between the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2015. Pp. xiii + 279. 16 unnumbered pages of plates and index. $32.95 hardcover, $14.99 e-book.

Reviewed by Anthony Calandrillo

Mark Spector’s The Battle of Alberta tells the story of the ferocious rivalry between the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames, a conflict that, in many ways, came to define the National Hockey League in the 1980s. As befitting Spector’s position as the Oilers’ beat writer for the Edmonton Journal during the late 1980s, this work is full of anecdotes about their multiple regular season and playoff clashes during the decade, yet he manages to touch on something bigger than just the contest between two hockey teams from the same province of Western Canada. One of Spector’s themes is the larger idea of the cities themselves as rivals: Calgary vs. Edmonton were competitors as urban centers as well as on the ice. There is also the conflict between western Canada and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, which Spector deftly addresses in a section on the coverage of this rivalry by the venerable Hockey Night in Canada, an institution that centered on the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens until the broadcast absolutely had to look somewhere else.

Spector is at his best when he analyzes the two hockey teams, however, revealing that each club came to define itself in terms of the other during this rivalry, especially at the beginning when the Flames were constantly chasing the Oilers during the early 1980s. While the Oilers of the time were truly a high-flying glamour hockey team, replete with stars including Wayne Gretzky, the Flames, as Spector illustrates, fashioned themselves as more of a blue-collar team, a group that saw hard work, patience, and the proper strategy as the way to catch and eventually pass the Oilers. To this extent, Spector’s sections on “Badger” Bob Johnson, Flames head coach from 1982-87 are quite illuminating. The Flames had to take a different approach to building a team, and Johnson, a very successful head coach at the University of Wisconsin, brought a very different ethic to Calgary. Spector wades into this topic with the knowledge of someone who saw it all unfold, emphasizing the Flames’ college-based success against the old-school approach that the Oilers took to building their team.

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The Battle of Alberta is arranged chronologically, dealing with the Oilers and Flames from 1979, when the Oilers joined the NHL from the World Hockey Association until 1991 when, as the author notes, the rivalry effectively ended. After 1991, neither team had any sustained presence at the top of the league as they did during the 1980s and early 90s. Yet, the author punctuates this chronology with important reminiscences to highlight the more important events in the rivalry.  The book flows very easily from one anecdote to the next, and all of the stories point toward just how nasty the rivalry was during the 1980s. Spector does a wonderful job pulling this information out of those he interviewed, and then meshing it with his recollections as someone who covered the Oilers through the decade. It is a fun book, full of insightful analyses and interesting stories. Many of the stories come directly from the participants, with Spector interviewing Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Theo Fleury, Neil Sheehy and many other players for both teams as well as fellow journalists who covered them. Yet, there are some nagging issues in this work, one involving something that should have been discussed, and one that speaks to the limits of nostalgia. First, there is no mention of the 1980-81 Calgary Flames team that reached the Stanley Cup semifinals before losing the Minnesota North Stars four games to two, a feat that Edmonton would not achieve until two years later when they went to the Stanley Cup finals only to lose to a juggernaut New York Islander team steamrolling to its fourth consecutive Stanley Cup victory. This Flames team needs to be contextualized in the larger picture of the rivalry. Spector discusses how the Flames looked at the Oilers once they became champions, but it would have been interesting to note how the same group of Oilers understood Calgary’s run to the semi-finals at a point where it was uncharted territory for either team.

 

Second, the book traffics in a nostalgia for a game that just doesn’t exist anymore, and though this can, and should be expected of this kind of work, there are times it gets in the way of the story Spector is trying to tell. The gripping narrative of two teams at the top of the NHL who valued beating each other almost as much as they valued winning the Stanley Cup is enough to sustain this work. Though the tone is mild, complaining that the NHL isn’t what it was 30 years ago takes away, at least for this reviewer, what the NHL actually was during that time: a violent, ferocious, provincial, yet profoundly entertaining league that many of us grew up with. This is apparent when Spector tells the story of these two teams.

Even with these minor issues, the book is an affectionate gaze back to an era where the province of Alberta was the center of the hockey universe. Intended for the general reader and hockey fan, Spector’s work sheds light on one of the most ferocious rivalries the sport has ever seen, and does so admirably.

Anthony Calandrillo is a Doctor of Letters candidate at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, whose research involves the intersection of American foreign policy and sports His dissertation is and examination of baseball as a tool of American foreign policy in the context of International Relations theory.

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