Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

HACKETT: Battle of Alberta thrills, ends too soon (for some)

Play La Bamba Baby!

I am by no means an Edmonton Oilers fan, let’s just get that out of the way first.

But, if you don’t know the story of six-year-old Ben Stelter by now, you might want to get a tissue box out.

Stelter has become an internet sensation during the NHL playoffs, as he courageously fights Glioblastoma, a fast-growing and aggressive brain tumor.

The Edmonton Oilers have embraced Ben like a member of their family, inviting him into the dressing room, hosting him at games and helping the youngster feel like a kid during his difficult struggle.

So, whether you hate the Oilers or not, you can’t ignore how special Thursday night’s victory was. It was Ben’s sixth birthday and Connor McDavid scored the overtime winner, to extend the team’s playoff run into the third round, for the first time since 2006.

The Oilers’ goal song is the famous tune, La Bamba by The Real Ritchie Valens. Part of Ben’s charm has come during these playoffs when the Oilers win, and he shouts out “Play La Bamba, Baby”. It warms your heart every time. I don’t care who you’re a fan of.

This, of course, also brings us back to Thursday.

What a heartbreaking way for the Battle of Alberta to end. I mean heartbreaking if you are a Calgary Flames fan, utter elation if you cheer for the Oilers.

It is heartbreaking for any hockey fan, in the sense that the series only lasted five games. The province was absolutely gripped with the series for the last week and a half, a rollercoaster of emotions right from the opening puck drop.

I was playing slo-pitch during Game 1 when a Flames fan on our team turned to me and said it’s 2-0. I responded quizzically, “already?”. After all, I knew what time puck drop was, and what time it actually was and the fact that two goals were scored in what seemed to be less than a minute of game time– virtually impossible by my basic calculations.

That game was bananas. Fifteen goals between the two teams, the Oilers coming back from down 4-1 to tie the game at six. Calgary eventually won 9-6 and Oilers fans had all the reasons in the world to be worried this would be a short series.

Never would they have guessed the reason it would be short is that their team pulled a complete 360.

Leon Draistil played out of his mind, recording 16 assists in five games. Connor McDavid showed his brilliance and Mike Smith– yep that Mike Smith, who let in a goal from beyond 130-feet, outduelled Vezina trophy nominee Jacob Markstrom. That last one was a pure head-scratcher.

What would the series be without controversy?

In Game 5, it looked like the Flames had grabbed a 5-4 lead late in the game. To the surprise of hockey fans across the country, the goal was called off, after the referees ruled that Blake Coleman showed a distinct kicking motion to direct the puck into the net.

Count me as one of those surprised folks– to me he was off-balance, trying to stop, while also falling down and being tangled up with Oilers defenceman Cody Ceci before the puck hit his skate. To each their own. That one will cast a shadow on this series until the two teams meet again.

While that sad moment will linger, the buzz this series created was something special. For me, growing up in Toronto, it was a little bit like when the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators met in the playoffs. But nowhere near the scale. Everybody in Red Deer or Alberta knows a fan on the other side of the rivalry. There were wagers, there were friendly jabs thrown out about the other team’s top or bottom player. It was fun, it was electric. Heck Milan Lucic was getting paid by both teams!

It was a welcome distraction from all the ills in the world, even if it was just for a couple of hours each night. As a neutral observer, I had a blast watching these two teams battle it out. I could have used a few more games but I’ll remember this series for the buzz it created around this province and even in Red Deer.

Alberta still has one team left in the playoffs, maybe we can all come together, for Ben and for the province and root for the Oilers in the Western Conference final.

Byron Hackett is the managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.