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It was the best of times in Calgary last spring. The Flames were Stanley Cup champions at last. It was the worst of times in Edmonton. Wayne Gretzky was gone, and so was the Cup. Thus did the plot of this tale of two cities grow thicker.
Ever since oil was discovered in Alberta's Turner Valley in 1937, the people of these two boomtowns have thought crude thoughts about one another. Blue-collar Edmonton, 160 miles north of Calgary, houses the provincial government. White-collar Calgary is the corporate center. Edmonton has the lordly Canadian Football League Eskimos; Calgary, the lowly Stampeders. Calgary has its outdoor Stampede each July; Edmonton, its Klondike Days. Calgary was home to the '88 Winter Olympics. But above all, Edmonton had Gretzky, and Calgary did not.
In 1986, when the Flames beat the Oilers in the Smythe Division finals—the only interruption in Edmonton's string of four Cups in five years starting in 1983-84—Calgary partied all night. Edmonton and Gretzky had at last been defeated. Never mind that the Flames went on to lose to the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals. By contrast, when the Flames beat the Canadiens for the Cup last season, the celebration in Calgary was polite. The Oilers had traded Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings and then lost to them in the first round of the playoffs, thereby denying Calgary the exquisite pleasure of upending Edmonton again.
Now two of the most bitter rivals in the NHL are at it once more. They're barreling toward another late-April matchup in the Smythe finals, and with no super teams having emerged in the NHL this season, the Cup may well hang in the balance. Gretzky's ghost, which rattled around in the Oilers' attic for a full season, appears to have vacated the premises. The Flames' 10-4 win over the Oilers in their penultimate head-to-head meeting of the regular season on Sunday night in Calgary evened their season series at 3-3-1. It also left Calgary one point ahead of Edmonton and four points behind the Boston Bruins, the league's overall leader.
"We played an unbelievable game," said Flames left wing Gary Roberts. Because of injuries to Grant Fuhr and Bill Ranford, the Oilers were down to Pokey Reddick, their third-string goalie. But the Flames' victory reaffirmed that they have the most talent in the league and must be considered a strong favorite to repeat as champions.
Early this season, the Flames figured to be both deep enough to withstand the loss of four veteran role players and mature enough not to become complacent. Three of those who departed—wingers Lanny McDonald and Jim Peplinski, both of whom retired, and defenseman Rob Ramage, who was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs—didn't get much ice time in 1988-89, but they did provide Calgary with leadership. Now the only voice being heard in the locker room is coach Terry Crisp's—and it's not a sound the Flames like to hear.
Crisp's incessant berating of his players may have helped them win the Cup last season, but his abuse has put a number of them on the edge of desperation this time around. However, when the players are asked about Crisp, they tap-dance around the question. "The coach doesn't have to be well-liked to be effective," says defenseman Jamie Macoun. "We have a good bunch, and we pick each other up when one of us gets picked on."
The Flames' unusually long season—the NHL required them to play six exhibition games in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia in early September, a series some of them could have done without—undoubtedly weakened the team during the first half of 1989-90. At least two players came back from the U.S.S.R. with viruses, and Calgary's heavy road schedule the first two months made matters even worse, as did the decline of veteran right wing Joey Mullen, a 51-goal scorer in 1988-89, who at week's end had only 27 goals.
But after the Flames went unbeaten during an eight-game stretch from Jan. 14 to Feb. 1, they again looked like the team to beat. Then they went 3-5 and looked highly vulnerable. "We've had trouble getting our intensity up to where it allows us to be great instead of average," says goaltender Rick Wamsley. Average would be the best way to describe the play of Calgary's other netminder, Mike Vernon, one of the heroes of last season's playoffs. And worried would be the best way to characterize the Flames' mood.
Sunday night, right wing Sergei Makarov had two goals and five assists for seven points, a Calgary record, and Mullen scored one goal, giving him a total of four in his last two games. If Makarov, who had been one exhausted-looking Soviet, and Mullen, 33, keep percolating, the Flames will have more offensive firepower than Edmonton. But Calgary is not as physical as the Oilers, which no doubt would be a factor if a playoff series between the two went seven games. "They are much more of a finesse team than they were a year ago," says John Muckler, Edmonton's first-year coach. "We are as physical as any team in the NHL—and I think they fear that."