As one of hockey’s fiercest rivalries on even the most mundane dates, how does the Battle of Alberta unfold when the unmatched spirit of the rivalry is infused with Christmas spirit too?
Since relocating north in 1980, the Flames have sparred against their provincial nemeses within two days of Christmas 16 times. Dec. 27, 2019, marks the 17th Yuletide showdown between the two squads, a hasty reversion to business mere hours after the wrap-up of their family festivities. With their similar records and traces of eggnog doubtlessly lingering in players’ systems, historical precedents could shed some red-and-green light on what could be an unpredictable, cutthroat and not-so-jolly December affair.
A brief historical overview
Considering historical Battles fought between Dec. 23 and Dec. 27, the Flames’ record against the Oilers is a feeble 5-9-2. Instead of overtime losses, the third slot actually represents ties which transpired in the first two Christmas-abutting Battles; Boxing Day 1982 spurred a 4-4 stalemate highlighted by a hat-trick from Lanny MacDonald and two goals from Oilers’ legend Mark Messier, and Dec. 23, 1983 went undecided as a 5-5 draw.
Visions of sugarplums seem to plague the Flames in contests just before Christmas, where their winning percentage is only 33.3%. One could also infer that turkey leftovers are a more effective pre-game meal for the Oilers than the Flames, as Edmonton has won 70% of Battles of Alberta played immediately after the holiday.
Tradition has favoured the Flames in recent years, however, as the red sweaters snagged three victories in the last four matchups from 2003, 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively. This auspicious upswing is one of many patterns underlying these festive editions of the fiery feud.
Commonplace in the ’80s yet even prevalent in this decade’s match-ups, Yuletide Battles maintain the spirit of giving with bountiful goals enjoyed by each side. Eight goals or more have been scored in half of the contests, including a 6-5 Oilers victory on Boxing Day 1984, a 7-3 Flames triumph in 1992 (their first ever Yuletide Battle of Alberta success) and a recent 5-3 nail-biter in Calgary’s favour on Dec. 27, 2015.
Beyond the game scores, these Battles are especially noteworthy for individual goal-scoring clinics performed by those enlivened by the holidays. That 1984 game witnessed a four-goal assault from Oilers’ defenceman Paul Coffey and the 1992 Flames’ win was spearheaded by Gary Roberts’ hat-trick. Players seem to shine offensively in these late-December games, so this year, one could hopefully expect the lamp to be lit up like a Christmas tree.
Maybe it’s the same animosity behind every intense rivalry, maybe it’s enhanced by a three-day visit with the in-laws, but Battles fought within 48 hours of Christmas Day are absolutely ferocious.
Nine of the sixteen contests have showcased at least 40 minutes of penalties issued, the bewildering runaway being Dec. 27, 1990. The 4-1 Oilers victory comprised a monstrous 237 minutes of penalties, including four game misconducts, four fights and 35 minutes alone for Dave Brown (twenty of which resulted from attempt to injure).
The Battle’s most notorious enforcers often tussled in these match-ups, such as Marty McSorley tossing the gloves against Tim Hunter on Boxing Day 1987.
Such enforcers were also often booted before the game’s end, like Georges Laraque on the same date in 2001. Christmas cheer is therefore not only forgotten in most of these contests, but totally forsaken.
Current Christmastime specialists
Despite the next Yuletide Battle of Alberta being four years detached from the last one, certain key fixtures remain on both sides of the conflict who dominated Christmas past.
For the Flames, Johnny Gaudreau excels in Battles on Dec. 27, netting a pair of goals in both 2014 and 2015 respectively. Take his recent simmering play, add a dash of his storied post-Christmas energy and maybe, just maybe, the recipe might be potent enough to trigger an explosion.
Due to the collarbone injury that marred his rookie season, Connor McDavid was absent for the 2015 affair and therefore has yet to show whether his sublime game enjoys a Christmas bonus. Fellow pivot Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, however, has glimmered in each of his past late-December Battles. Contributing a goal in the 2014 game and two assists in 2015, Nugent-Hopkins gifted the Oilers with points on every goal but one that they scored in each of their losses. Breaking the streak of defeats this Friday will be high on his Christmas list, but this esoteric offensive acumen is something he’ll undoubtedly wish to repeat in the latest edition of the Yuletide Battle of Alberta.