Battle of Alberta hockey allegiances split in Red Deer

“Having both fan bases fully committed to the playoffs is something that has never happened to a lot of people under the age of 40,” said Merrick Sutter, senior vice president of the Red Deer Rebels and nephew of Flames coach Darryl Sutter. “We see it every day at Red Deer, just the sheer nature of being right in the middle.”

While this is the sixth time the two teams have met in the NHL postseason, it is the first time in 31 years. The Oilers own a 4-1 series record.

The rebels tweeted Monday with a wink: “Pray for Red Deer.”

Red Deer actually wins no matter which team emerges victorious, Mayor Ken Johnston said.

“Really, every city from Fort McMurray in the north to Lethbridge in the south will benefit from the series, the bars, the restaurants, the hospitality, the opportunity for people to come together and socialize… and it couldn’t have come at a better time.” Perspective. People are just so eager to get out there and be personal.

“But Red Deer will certainly benefit from this. Every other city (in Alberta) will have a piece of this series.”

The mayor’s allegiance, he freely admitted, belongs to the Flames. He worked at Calgary during the team’s heyday in the late ’80s when they reached the 1986 Stanley Cup Final and won everything in 1989.

He has a Calgary jersey and a hat signed by Flames legend Lanny McDonald.

“As a good mayor, I have to carry a little Oilers fanfare every once in a while,” he added, laughing.

Sutter said the loyalties at the Battle of Alberta have generational roots. His, of course, were forged in his family’s long history with the Flames. His father Brent, now owner, president and GM of the Rebels, coached the Flames for three seasons, and Uncle Darryl’s first coaching stint in Calgary was in 2003.

“Not many can understand it, but there aren’t many circumstances where two franchises have a rivalry that long,” he said. “It goes back to grandparents and parents, back to the 80s and so on. It’s embedded. It’s special to rekindle it now, but for me it’s really about the younger people who haven’t seen this rivalry before.”

Troy Gillard, who does play-by-play of Rebels games, said Red Deer have unique connections with both teams – although he noted he wore a Flames polo to the office on Monday. There are the rebels’ connections to the Sutter family. But he believes the Oilers saw a surge of new fans when the club drafted Rebel center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins first overall in 2011. He was the first Rebel to be drafted No. 1.

The Oilers also have defenseman Kris Russell, who is from nearby Caroline, Alta. and had Red Deer-born Colton Sceviour before renouncing him at the end of January.

“Again, here at the Rebels, we’re pretty much a 50/50 split. It’s going to be a lot of fun here over the next few weeks,” said Gillard.

These playoffs are the first to be played in packed arenas since the start of COVID-19 in Canada. Red Deer was beaten last winter by the Omicron variant, which resulted in the World Junior Championships there being canceled four days after it started.

“That Game 7 in overtime was as close to a return to normalcy as you’ll find,” said Sutter, who was in Calgary on Sunday night to watch the Flames’ 3-2 OT thriller over Dallas.

“To see the crowd in Game 7 two nights ago at Rogers Arena (in Edmonton), that game ended with a late goal and a burst of energy, and then to get that and it then probably even (Sunday) night into game 7 to Beat, Overtime (in Calgary) – Play sevens with premium endings in their own arenas…couldn’t put it better.”

Red Deer Bars are excited after a few years of tough times amid the pandemic.

“We’re all very, very excited, it’s been a long time since something like this happened,” said Brennen Wowk, owner of 400-seat Bo’s Bar & Stage. “Staff will be in jerseys of their choice (he’ll be in his #99 Wayne Gretzky Oilers jersey), we’ll be pouring lots of beer and turning the volume up as loud as possible. As much excitement as we can put in this space, we will put in this space.”

Dallas Gaume hopes Alberta teams will return hockey enrollment numbers in Red Deer to pre-pandemic numbers in the postseason.

“A lot of eyes will be on the province over the next two weeks and I really believe we’ll see some growth from that,” said Gaume, the GM of the Red Deer Minor Hockey Association.

There was no season in 2020/21 due to COVID-19, and then the number of returning players fell by 7.5 percent last winter. Gaume believes it is a combination of issues, e.g. B. players needing to be vaccinated to enter arenas and players finding other winter activities during lockdown.

Like the town of Red Deer, Gaume’s loyalties are divided. He coached Nugent-Hopkins with the Rebels, “so I’m a big fan of his. And I’m a big Sutters fan, I think Darryl is a great coach. So I like both teams.”

No love is lost between the two rosters, he said, and Canada vs. USA in women’s hockey would be a fitting comparison.

“I know it’s an extremely strong rivalry, with a lot of dislike for each other,” Gaume said. “I think the same could be said of these two teams. I know that if a lot of people like the Oilers, they hate the Flames in general and vice versa. You can’t like both.”

If he had to pick a winner?

“I think the Flames are the better team. Doesn’t necessarily mean they win the series. How’s that for my prediction to be sitting on the fence?” he said with a laugh.

Game 2 takes place in Calgary on Friday before the series heads north to Edmonton for Games 3 and 4. The winner of the series will face either St. Louis or Colorado in the Western Conference Finals.

“One of the teams from Alberta will be playing for a place in the Stanley Cup finals,” marveled Gillard. “It will be heartbreaking for the team that loses in Round 2, but for the team that progresses, how exciting is that?”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 16, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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