NHL hopes familiarity will breed contempt

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:16 AM ET

The way Darryl Sutter sees it, the Battle of Alberta has been little more than a minor skirmish of late.

But he says all that is about to change now that the provincial showdown will include the only ingredients he figures are necessary for a true rivalry:

"Two good teams," said Sutter, a traditionalist encouraged by the NHL's move to accentuate rivalries by pitting divisional rivals against one another eight times a year.

"There's really only a good hockey rivalry when both teams are good teams.

"Other than the '80s and early '90s when both hockey clubs were great, all that Battle of Alberta stuff has been a city against city thing built around politics. The football teams and hockey teams only added to it -- they didn't start it."

Most tend to expand on Sutter's basic requirements for a true rivalry including his captain, Jarome Iginla, who says two teams must also share a history as well as a similar style of play to be anointed such status.

Whether it's trainer Bearcat Murray climbing over the glass and into the stands or Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish yanking out Harvey the Hound's tongue in 2004, actions off the ice often mirror the intensity on it when two competitive clubs share a genuine rivalry.

"The tongue became a rallying point for us to hate Edmonton again," said Flames assistant coach Jim Playfair, who figures the league's move to up the number of division games will pay off for fans.

"I think what it does across the NHL is really increase the intensity level of every shift.

"Those two points are precious because of the amount of times you play division games.

"On top of everything, let's face it -- Calgary and Edmonton have a natural built-in challenge with each other. I don't think that's always been the case in Ottawa and Toronto."

Yet, anyone asked about NHL rivalries points to the Ontario clash that has emerged over the last five years of playoff battles -- another crucial element in a rivalry.

"If you look at any great rivalry at any level, it usually has its foundation as a great playoff rivalry," said Edmonton assistant coach Craig Simpson, who played during the Flames/Oilers glory days.

"The biggest thing from back in the late '80s and '90s was that it was inevitable the rivalry through the year would spill over into the playoffs. That's what really built the animosity and intensity of the matchups."

Once laughed off by Toronto fans and the media, the Senators have now replaced the Maple Leafs' traditional rival Montreal, thanks to four playoff wars with the Sens in the last five years.

Media hype and passionate hockey fans are also key to raising a showdown to rivalry status.

While both New York clubs have long disappeared from hockey's upper echelon, local fans continue to see the Long Island/Manhattan games as important for bragging rights.

Few others do.

Old (Chuck) Norris Division combatants St. Louis and Chicago are much the same way, now that they've both been reduced to also-rans.

Detroit and Colorado's battles for the top in the late '90s prompted their goalies to punch one another out, while the growing distaste between Vancouver and the Avs spiralled out of control in 2004 thanks to Todd Bertuzzi.

Add the Flames to the Canucks list of rivals following years of hatred capped by last year's seven-game playoff matchup.

New Oiler Chris Pronger can't waity for the season to start.

"I think the heightened rivalries are great for the fans -- you're going to see some spirited efforts once the season starts," said Pronger, whose club failed to win a game against Calgary in five tries last year.

"Obviously I haven't played in the Battle of Alberta yet but I can't wait."

Neither can anyone else in Wild Rose Country, making it just like old times.


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