Kudos to bitter rivals

WES GILBERTSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:37 AM ET

Thank the rivals?

It would've sounded crazy back then, but two decades after the fact, sending a thank-you card to the Calgary Flames' fiercest rivals doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

To the four-time Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers, for forcing them to be better.

And to the underdog Vancouver Canucks, for pushing them to the edge of the cliff before they finally scaled the mountain.

Raising a Stanley Cup championship banner was the ultimate goal, but during the mid- to late-80s, simply escaping the first couple of playoff rounds was no small feat -- especially when the road to the Campbell Conference finals ran through the powerhouse Oilers.

"You had to first come out of your own province," recalled Flames centre Joel Otto, now an assistant coach for the WHL's Calgary Hitmen. "Obviously, it made Calgary better because of that."

Just three hours north on what's now known as the QEII Highway, the Oilers had already won the Stanley Cup four times, setting off an arms race in the Smythe Division. Even after trading Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in August '88, they boasted one of the NHL's most dangerous squads.

"The challenge was to try to compete with the Oilers and catch up with the Oilers. It's actually what motivated us and probably went a long way toward why we were able to meet the challenge," said GM Cliff Fletcher, who followed the Flames north from Atlanta when the team relocated prior to the 1980-81 season. "We used to wake up and go to the rink every day -- the hockey department -- and say 'Well, are we any closer to the Oilers than we were yesterday?' "

The Oilers were bounced in the opening round in 1989, losing in seven games to old pal Gretzky and the Kings.

That same night, the Canucks came within inches of eliminating the Flames.

A series many experts predicted would end in a sweep lasted seven games, plus 19:21 of overtime, before a pass bounced off Joel Otto's skate and into the net to send the Saddledome crowd into a frenzy and the Flames into the second round.

Now immortalized on YouTube (search Otto's name and you'll find grainy footage of the goal included amongst a long list of scraps), it's certainly not a thing of a beauty. It was, however, one of the most important markers on Calgary's quest to sip from Stanley's Cup.

"It was a relief, I'm sure, for everybody," Otto said. "Our line was no secret -- just try to get to the front of the net and try to be as physical as we could. I went to the front, and it went off my skate. It was lucky, I guess, but we'll take it."

Six weeks later, they were taking turns skating laps with the Stanley Cup.

Of Calgary's six post-season setbacks, three came in the opening round against the Canucks. After surviving the Smythe Division semi- final, the Flames swept past the Kings, finished off the Chicago Blackhawks in five and clipped the Montreal Canadiens in six.

Flames co-captain Tim Hunter called the Canucks series "a good little kick in the pants for us."

"The Canucks gave us all we could handle and more," agreed coach Terry Crisp. "When we survived that first round, our team was like a juggernaut. We just took off. I don't think we were ever in doubt that we were the team that was going to take it that year, once we dodged that bullet."


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