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The last Battle of Alberta was in 1991. Here’s how Calgary is different — and how it remains the same | CBC News

It was a shot that bounced off a pad, sailing past Calgary Flames goaltender Mike Vernon, that brought the 1991 dream to an end. 

It was, of course, impossible to know it would end that way. A little more than a month prior, on March 4, 1991, Vernon was in the middle of outdueling Montreal Canadiens goaltender Patrick Roy.

That same night, a still relatively unknown grunge trio known as Nirvana (possibly undersold on the poster only as being “from Seattle”) would play its first show in Calgary at the Westward Club, months before they would release Smells Like Teen Spirit and reach superstardom.

At that time, Catherine Ford was a columnist based at the Calgary Heraldtrying to kick her smoking habit and consequently running into serious nicotine withdrawals.

“Let me put it this way,” Ford said. “Not that I remember a lot of the 1990s, but 1991 was a particularly, shall we say, efficacious year.”

Efficacious — productive and constructive — not just because Ford would eventually go on to dump her cigarettes, but also because she began to see the signs of a city in transition.

She watched as the city became one that was more culturally diverse, one that saw booms (and busts) and transformations in its downtown, a city that saw its homogenous political landscape begin to gradually evolve into something more complicated.

An aerial view of the city of Calgary in 1991. (Glenbow Museum)

Still, headlines from the Calgary Herald from that year demonstrate that while some things change, others seem more familiar to the Calgary of today.

Take Ald. Barb Scott’s efforts in the Jan. 21, 1991, edition to convert empty buildings in downtown Calgary to housing in order to serve the city’s needy.

Or, a story from the Feb. 1 edition, which reported on high prices at the pump brought on by an ongoing conflict in the Persian Gulf.

In June 1991, Al Duerr was the mayor of the city, pushing back against a “fat cat” image of Calgary and worried about the spectre of federal cuts.

WATCH | Legendary Calgary goaltender Mike Vernon on the Battle of Alberta

Legendary Calgary goaltender Mike Vernon on the Battle of Alberta

Advice from a pro! Veteran Calgary Flames goaltender Mike Vernon says players from the Flames and the Edmonton Oilers in Wednesday’s Stanley Cup playoff game need to keep their heads level and take one step at a time in the first Battle of Alberta in decades.

The city had seen more than 4,300 Calgarians laid off in the previous six months, with NovAtel, Canada Packers and other energy companies among those axing positions.

However, Calgary’s unemployment rate was well below the national average. It had gained hundreds of new residents after TransCanada PipeLines Ltd. relocated to the city.

The concern, in Duerr’s eyes, was the federal government eyeing Calgary for cuts based on its “resilient spirit,” bouncing back even though the peak of the oil boom in the late 1970s appeared to be only in the rear-view mirror.

Al Duerr served as the 34th mayor of Calgary, from 1989 to 2001, before being succeeded by Dave Bronconnier. (James Young/CBC)

Today, Duerr sees many similarities between that period of time and the Calgary of today — and where the Battle of Alberta fits into it.

“Back in 1991, we were struggling. We’re struggling now, we’re coming out of a very difficult period,” Duerr said. “The Battle of Alberta gave us that opportunity to refocus.”

‘They choked’

It was in that context that Alberta’s two hockey teams were set to clash in the first round, both organizations fresh off recent championship wins: the Calgary Flames in 1989, the Edmonton Oilers the very next year.

Doug Dirks, the former host of CBC’s The Homestretch, was in Calgary in 1991 doing a daily nationally-syndicated radio feature called the Faceoff Circle.

“There was so much excitement in the city. They were coming off of the 1989 Stanley Cup win and everybody thought that it was going to be a dynasty for the ages,” said Dirks, who became a full-time sports anchor and reporter for CBC in 1993.

Two young unidentified hockey fans, cheering for opposing teams, secured their Game 7 tickets prior to a matchup between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers at the Olympic Saddledome on April 16, 1991. ‘Grant Fuhr, best pressure goaltender in the league,’ said the Oilers fan. ‘[Mike] Vernon’s gonna get the Conn Smythe [Trophy],’ the Flames fan insisted. (CBC Archives)

The day before the puck dropped for Game 7 in Calgary at what was then called the Olympic Saddledome, 2,100 tickets went on sale in the morning, selling out in 50 minutes.

That Battle of Alberta went a full seven games and ended in heartbreak for the Flames faithful courtesy of the stick of Esa Tikkanen. He found the back of the net three times, with his overtime goal sealing the series for Oil Country, four games to three.

“There is no way to soft-pedal the Flames’ 5-4 loss. They choked, plain and simple,” wrote Calgary Herald sportswriter Eric Duhatschek in a post-mortem.

Four days later, at precisely 3 p.m., Ford put out her last cigarette. The Flames would go on to see a playoff drought, not winning another series until 2004.

At the Westward

Though fans went home dejected that night, Calgary’s future at that time seemed bright in other ways, especially if you weren’t a member of the Flames faithful.

To non-sports fans like Arif Ansari, who likely was at the Westward Club or the Republik Nightclub the night the team got the boot, 1991 was a time when the alternative music scene started to blossom, when there was excitement in the air.

Movie listings from the Calgary Herald on April 16, 1991, the day the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers faced off for Game 7 at the Olympic Saddledome. The Steven Seagal action vehicle Out for Justice topped the box office, having dethroned the previous titleholder, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. (CBC News)

Some early 1990s nights reached legendary status for Ansari, like when American heavy metal band GWAR played at the Westward Club and fans experienced first-hand the band’s schtick of spraying fake blood all over the audience.

“So there’s great stories of people coming home after that show, covered in all this fake blood and walking like a horde of zombies down 17th Avenue,” said Ansari, who runs the Calgary Cassette Preservation Society and is a local music archivist.

Some believed at that time that culturally Calgary could have become the next Seattle, said Mike Bell, the publisher of the Calgary-based monthly arts and culture publication The Scene.

A 1991 poster from the Westward Club, a popular music venue in downtown Calgary that hosted acts like the Flaming Lips, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Lenny Kravitz. (Submitted by Arif Ansari)

“There was an excitement about music, about arts,” Bell said.

“People were spending money, people were going to theatre. People were wanting to get out, and artists here didn’t feel like they had to leave. Things were actually happening in Calgary.”

The intangibles

Tonight, the Flames and the Oilers will meet again in a renewed Battle of Alberta. Instead of Theoren Fleury and Tikkanen, this year’s matchup will be headlined by young superstars Johnny Gaudreau and Connor McDavid.

Since the 1991 matchup, Calgary has gone from Duerr, to Dave Bronconnier, to Naheed Nenshi, to Jyoti Gondek.

It’s gone from oil boom, to oil bust, to oil boom again, though this time with heightened urgency as to what comes next — both for the economy and for the climate.

It’s now home to more than 1.3 million residents, up from 750,000 in 1991 (and that’s not to mention bedroom communities like Chestermere, Alta., which has grown to more than 20,000, compared with 900 in 1991).

Former Calgary Flames player Jamie Macoun, who won a Stanley Cup with the team in 1989, says he quickly realized how important the Battle of Alberta was after arriving in Calgary in 1983. (James Young/CBC)

Ford, who has written thousands of columns about Calgary and Alberta, said she’ll continue to defend the place she calls home, no matter what comes next, even if talking about what makes it home can seem cliché — the big, blue wide sky, the mountains, the unpredictable weather that keeps residents on their toes.

“It’s all those intangibles that make you love something. That’s like asking me why I love my husband. Do I love him because he’s tall and handsome and good looking?” she said. 

“No, none of those things. I love him because of who he is. I love this city because of what it is, and what it represents to all of us.”

Game 1 of the second round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs between the Flames and the Oilers kicks off at 7:30 p.m. at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary.

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