This one has meaning

Edmonton Oilers defenceman Chris Pronger plays with his three-year-old son Jack during the Oilers...

Edmonton Oilers defenceman Chris Pronger plays with his three-year-old son Jack during the Oilers annual Christmas skate at Rexall Place yesterday. It's back to business tonight when the Calgary Flames come calling. (Edmonton Sun/Perry Mah)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:34 AM ET

For longer than we'd all probably care to remember, Edmonton-Calgary games were low-stakes poker at best.

They were spirited, intense, often violent and almost always competitive and entertaining.

But the Battles of Alberta meant virtually nothing, other than which of the two Western Conference bottom feeders had a better shot at ninth place.

It was like two bums fighting over a shopping cart.

Now, 33 games into the other side of the NHL lockout, the Oilers and Flames, for the first time since the mid 80s, get to play each other for something more important than provincial bragging rights.

When they meet tonight at Rexall Place, Edmonton and Calgary will be chasing division and conference leads instead of their tails.

WHERE THE FANS WANT IT

"It's back to where the fans of Alberta want it to be. We're battling for division titles again," said Shawn Horcoff.

"It's a tribute to both organizations because we've really come full circle since the '80s when both teams were such powerhouses.

"They both were patient when the economics were unfeasible and they're seeing results now. And both sides couldn't be happier."

And you can't blame them.

It's been 16 years since they both made the playoffs in the same season, and only once in that span has either one of them finished higher than sixth in the West (Calgary, in the strike shortened '94-95 season).

And all those Battles of Alberta in between? Fun, rambunctious, hard-hitting and mean-spirited.

But penny ante all the way.

"It was a matter of both sides hating each other. But, really, what are you playing for?" said Horcoff.

"You're trying to hold on to eighth place. Now, we're trying to win the division and get home ice in the playoffs.

"It's exciting for the players, for the fans, for everyone."

To a man, it's more fun to be playing Calgary when something other than pride hangs in the balance.

"It's good for everybody," said Marty Reasoner.

"The rivalry has always been there, but how much more exciting was it when it was two teams that were battling for top spot in the conference and the division.

"The games are always going to be big, but when it's a situation where both teams are playing well, it makes it that much better."

The trade-off, of course, is that in the new NHL the Battle of Alberta is no longer going to be a battle.

INFINITE WISDOM

The NHL, in its infinite wisdom, has legislated toughness and aggression out of the game - so the days of Edmonton and Calgary rolling up their sleeves, dropping their gloves and deciding which team was willing to pay a higher price are gone, probably forever.

"I think you're still going to see the tough play," said Jarret Stoll, with 10 stitches across his cheek after an errant high stick in Vancouver.

"But it depends on how the game is called. If there's going to be a lot of power plays, it's going to be a specialty teams game again."

Aren't they all?

The referees, somewhere along the line, mistook zero tolerance on obstruction and interference to mean zero tolerance on aggression.

With every little shove, scrum and facewash being called, teams realize they have to stick to shinny.

In the first three games between Edmonton and Calgary, there were 36 power plays and zero fights.

"That's just a product of the way the game is now," said Reasoner. "You find battles in different ways. It's going to be physical, it's going to be fast, it's going to be exciting."

And there's something at stake.

There might not be much battling in the Battle of Alberta anymore, but the days of the penny-ante pots are over, too.

"I don't think it's going to be any less of a battle, only now it's going to be a battle along with some good, skilled hockey," said Horcoff.

"That's more exciting."

It beats 36 power plays, zero fights and playing for ninth, anyway.


Videos

Photos