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The last Battle of Alberta took place in 1991. Here’s how Calgary is different — and how it stays the same

It was a shot that ricocheted off a pad and sailed past Calgary Flames goalie Mike Vernon that ended the 1991 dream.

There was, of course, no way of knowing it would end like this. A little over a month earlier, on March 4, 1991, Vernon was in the middle of a duel with Patrick Roy, the Montreal Canadiens goaltender.

That same night, a relatively unknown grunge trio called Nirvana (possibly underrated on the poster as just “from Seattle”) played their first show in Calgary at the Westward Club, months before they would be released smells like Teen Spirit and become a superstar.

At the time, Catherine Ford was a columnist for the Calgary Herald, tries to quit her smoking habit and consequently falls into serious nicotine withdrawal symptoms.

“Let me put it that way,” said Ford. “Not that I can remember the 1990s, but 1991 was a particularly, shall we say, effective year.”

Effective – productive and constructive – not only because Ford would eventually throw away her cigarettes, but also because she was beginning to see the signs of a city in transition.

She watched the city become more culturally diverse, a city that experienced booms (and collapses) and changes in its inner city, a city that saw its homogenous political landscape gradually evolve into something more complicated.

An aerial view of the city of Calgary in 1991. (Glenbow Museum)

Still, this year’s Calgary Herald headlines show that while some things are changing, others seem more familiar to today’s Calgary.

Take Ald. Barb Scott’s efforts in the January 21, 1991 issue to convert vacant buildings in downtown Calgary into housing to serve the city’s needy.

Or a story from the February 1 issue that reported high prices at the pump caused by an ongoing conflict in the Persian Gulf.

In June 1991, Al Duerr was the city’s mayor, fighting against a “fat cat” image of Calgary and concerned about the specter of federal cuts.

Over the past six months, more than 4,300 Calgarians have been laid off in the city, including NovAtel, Canada Packers and other energy companies.

However, Calgary’s unemployment rate was well below the national average. It had gained hundreds of new residents after TransCanada PipeLines Ltd. had moved to the city.

The concern, in Duerr’s eyes, was the federal government, which was eyeing Calgary for cuts because of its “resilient spirit,” which was recovering even though the peak of the oil boom in the late 1970s seemed only in the rearview mirror.

Al Duerr was the 34th mayor of Calgary from 1989 to 2001, before being succeeded by Dave Bronconnier. (James Young/CBC)

Today, Duerr sees many similarities between that time and Calgary today – and where the Battle of Alberta fits in.

“In 1991 we had problems. We’re fighting now, we’re coming from a very difficult time,” said Duerr. “The Battle of Alberta gave us an opportunity to refocus.”

“They choked”

In that context, Alberta’s two hockey teams clashed in the first round, both organizations fresh from recent championship victories: the Calgary Flames in 1989, the Edmonton Oilers next year.

Doug Dirks, the former host of CBC’s The home trackwas in Calgary in 1991 doing a daily nationally syndicated radio feature called The faceoff circle.

“There was so much excitement in the city. They came after winning the Stanley Cup in 1989 and everyone thought it was going to be a dynasty for the ages,” said Dirks, who became a full-time sports anchor and reporter for CBC in 1993.

Two young, unidentified hockey fans cheering on opposing teams secured their tickets to Game 7 before a matchup between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers at the Olympic Saddledome on April 16, 1991. “Grant Fuhr, the league’s best goaltender,” said the Oilers fan. ‘[Mike] Vernon will get the Conn Smythe [Trophy]’ the Flames fan insisted. (CBC archive)

The day before the puck dropped for Game 7 in Calgary at what was then the Olympic Saddledome, 2,100 tickets went on sale that morning and sold out in 50 minutes.

This Alberta battle went on for a full seven games and ended in heartbreak for the Flames loyalists thanks to Esa Tikkanen’s racquet. He hit the back of the net three times, with his overtime goal sealing the streak for Oil Country, four games to three.

“There is no way to mitigate the Flames’ 5-4 defeat. They just choked,” wrote the Calgary Herald Sports journalist Eric Duhatschek in an autopsy.

Four days later, at 3 p.m. sharp, Ford stubbed out her last cigarette. The Flames would experience a playoff drought, not winning another series until 2004.

On the west side

Though fans went home dejected that night, Calgary’s future seemed otherwise bright at the time, especially if you weren’t a member of the Flames stalwarts.

For non-sports fans like Arif Ansari, who was likely at the Westward Club or the Republic Nightclub the night the team got the shoe, 1991 was a time when the alternative music scene was beginning to flourish when excitement was in the air .

Film listings from the Calgary Herald for April 16, 1991, the day the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers played Game 7 at the Olympic Saddledome. Steven Seagal’s action vehicle Out for Justice topped the box office after dethroning the previous titleholder, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. (CBC News)

Some nights in the early 1990s achieved legendary status for Ansari, such as when American heavy metal band GWAR performed at the Westward Club and fans witnessed firsthand the band’s trick of splattering fake blood all over the audience.

“So there are great stories of people coming home after this show covered in all this fake blood and walking down 17th Avenue like a horde of zombies,” said Ansari, who runs the Calgary Cassette Preservation Society and is a local music archivist.

Some believed at the time that Calgary might have become culturally the next Seattle, said Mike Bell, editor of Calgary-based monthly arts and culture publication The Scene.

A 1991 poster of the Westward Club, a popular downtown Calgary music venue that hosted acts such as the Flaming Lips, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Lenny Kravitz. (Submitted by Arif Ansari)

“There was an excitement about music, about art,” Bell said.

“People spent money, people went to the theatre. People wanted out and the artists here didn’t feel like they had to leave. Things actually happened in Calgary.”

The intangibles

Tonight, the Flames and Oilers meet again in another battle for Alberta. Instead of Theoren Fleury and Tikkanen, this year’s duel will be led by young superstars Johnny Gaudreau and Connor McDavid.

Since the 1991 matchup, Calgary made trades from Duerr to Dave Bronconnier, to Naheed Nenshi, and to Jyoti Gondek.

It has gone from oil boom to oil boom and oil boom again, but this time with heightened urgency about what comes next – for both the economy and the climate.

It is now home to more than 1.3 million residents, up from 750,000 in 1991 (not to mention sleeper communities like Chestermere, Alta. which have grown to more than 20,000, down from 900 in 1991).

Former Calgary Flames player Jamie Macoun, who won a Stanley Cup with the team in 1989, said he quickly realized the importance of the Battle of Alberta after arriving in Calgary in 1983. (James Young/CBC)

Ford, who has written thousands of columns about Calgary and Alberta, said she will continue to defend the place she calls home no matter what comes next, even though it may seem cliche to talk about what made her Makes home – the big, blue, wide sky, the mountains, the unpredictable weather that keeps the residents on their toes.

“It’s all those intangibles that make you love something. That’s like asking me why I love my husband. Do I love him because he’s tall and handsome and good looking?” she said.

“No, none of that. I love him for what he is. I love this city for what it is and what it represents for all of us.”

Game 1 of the second round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Flames and the Oilers begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary.

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