In there were fears any novelty would wear off, they were put to bed quickly.
Before puck drop, the Centrium seats were crowded with both a sea of red and the Oilers blue and orange.
Saturday night, hockey fans once again showed that Central Alberta is an area somewhat divided when it comes to their fandom– yet the support runs deep regardless which direction, north or south that their ties to hockey lay.
As the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames hit the ice for another edition of the annual rookie game, local hockey fans were set to have their voice heard.
They were especially loud for local product Andrew Nielsen, who put on the Calgary Flames jersey for the first time.
Nielsen was traded to the Flames last year and spent most of the season with the Stockton Heat of the AHL. When he arrived at the rink Saturday, he took a few moments just to take in his name on the back of a Flames Jersey.
“It was pretty cool. Had it marked for a while. Not gonna lie I was little nervous to come out and play in front of everybody,” said the 22-year-old who had about 50-60 family and friends in the crowd.
“It was fun, first time putting on the Flames jersey so it was pretty cool for me. All in all, I had good experience and even better we got the win.”
Beyond the Nielsen, the fans still didn’t have much to cheer about on either side most of the night until former Victoria Royal Matthew Phillips scored the first goal of the game 2:04 into overtime. His tally earned the 1-0 victory for the Flames rookies.
Up until that point, it was the goalies who stole the show. Flames goalie Artyom Zagidulin posted the shutout and Dylan Wells stopped everything he faced in during his chance for the Oilers. Stuart Skinner, the former Lethbridge Hurricane was beaten just once, on the two-on-one in overtime.
Nielsen, a Red Deer Minor Hockey product, originally drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs, is now patrolling the blueline for a team that resides just over an hour down the road from his hometown.
You couldn’t even come close to containing the smile when he described how special it was to play at the Centrium Saturday.
“My uncle tried to get me into a Mike Comrie jersey when I was like six or seven and I didn’t even take a sniff at it. I’ve been a diehard Flames fan since I can remember,” he recalled, adding that former Rebel Dion Phaneuf in a Flames’ uniform helped solidify his fandom.
“I was definitely excited when I got traded to Calgary. It’s definitely a dream come true.”
Then there was Luke Philip, who played only 34 games in Rebels uniform, but they were some of the most memorable in franchise history.
He was traded to Red Deer during the Memorial Cup run, recording 16 points in 17 regular-season games and another 17 on the road to the Memorial Cup on home ice in Red Deer. He said the atmosphere Saturday had a similar feel to that run.
“It was good atmosphere. There weren’t many goals on either side so the crowd quieted down but the fans here were always awesome for my short stint here,” he said.
Philip might even understand the rivalry better than most, as he plays USports hockey in the Canada West with the University of Alberta Golden Bears in Edmonton. Philip had a season for the ages in 2018-19, winning the USports Player of the Year award as he notched 45 points in 21 games.
“I owe a lot to that program. It’s an awesome program up there. We had great teams every year and a great coaching staff,” said the 23-year-old.
“Your teammates make you better and I continued to improve as a player up there. We had six guys sign contracts from that team last year.”
Nielsen said although he didn’t have the greatest year with the Heat in the AHL last season, he’s hoping to impress the Flames’ brass in training camp and find a way to play his first game at the Saddledome this season.
“You’re in the middle of both cities so you’re going to get a mix of it. Growing up here and coming to games like this in Edmonton and Calgary there’s always going to be a crowd for both teams,” he said.
“It was my first experience in a battle of Alberta, it was pretty cool and it was fun to be a part of and hopefully I can be a part of a real one soon.”