It’s that time of the year when it’s great to be a hockey fan. Your team is in the midst of trying to qualify for the playoffs. Every morning you’re out of bed to check the scores and see if your team still has a spot in the post-season tournament.
It’s especially exciting in Alberta this spring because the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers are both in the running to be playing hockey well into April. The Oilers haven’t been in the post-season in a decade. The Flames have only made rare and intermittent visits to the tournament since winning the Stanley Cup in 1989. The fact the team has won 16 of its last 20 games, to pull itself into the race, has added fuel to the fans’ excitement. And the fact the two clubs are separated by just a point as I write this – and compete in the same division – is bound to add fire to the north-south rivalry. In the past week, both teams have been playing on alternate nights. Invariably, a new day dawns with a change in the standings.
Some of us can remember back three decades to the Flames-Oilers playoff battles of the 1980’s. It was hockey at its very best. It is the measuring stick we use to compare all playoff matchups, no matter which teams are involved today. It was blood and guts on the ice and wagers and chirping in the stands. It dominated life in the two hockey centres, and indeed, in the whole province. It made household names out of the participants and left buckets of memories for anyone lucky enough to be at a game.
A new collection of players would like to make their own memories. It helps that some of the best young stars in the game are on the rosters of the Alberta teams. They are learning what it takes to win; the sweat and the wear and tear on bodies, the pressures of a knowledgeable fan base, the dissection of performances by an inquisitive media.
One of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s favourite words is parity. He loves the fact that all but a half dozen of the thirty NHL teams still have a chance to be in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He was in town last week to talk about arenas and how the Flames need a new building to replace the 34-year-old Saddledome. Calgarians have been looking up the highway to Edmonton, where the Oilers are playing in a shiny new rink that is world class.
I can remember when the Saddledome was thought of in the same terms. Perhaps its replacement will be built someday soon. For me, though, the story is less about the building and more about the game that is played inside that building.
And what do you suppose the atmosphere will be like next month if the game inside happened to involve both the Flames and the Oilers? They have not played each other since Jan. 21 and they are not due to meet again during the regular season. If the next time they meet is sometime in April, a new generation would be able to experience what some of us can still remember from three decades ago. I can hardly wait.