Penning his book outlining the stories of Alberta’s great hockey wars was a labour of love for Mark Spector.
The Edmonton native was a fan and then a journalist during the torrid rivalry between his hometown Oilers and the Calgary Flames in the ‘80 and early ‘90s. Now, roughly 25 years following the conclusion of the icy conflict, Spector has come forward with his take on the not-so-civil wars— a 300-page chronicle aptly titled ‘The Battle of Alberta’.
“I don’t know that all the stories and all the tales about the spears, the fights, the goals and the wins ever got pulled together into one. I thought to myself ‘well, why don’t I do that,’” Spector said Wednesday.
The former Edmonton Journal and National Post sports writer and current Sportsnet columnist and TV analyst, interviewed various players, coaches, team officials and fellow media members while gathering information for his project.
“I spent a lot of time at the library looking at editions of the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal from back in the day,” he said. “In total, I would say it took me inside of a year to compile the data, get the interviews and then write the book. You can only interview so many people before you eventually have to sit down and write the darn thing.”
The Battle of Alberta is about the intensity and passion of the rivalry and includes interviews with many of the combatants who were involved in the various antics, such as the infamous Marty McSorley spear on the Flames’ Mike Bullard and the numerous scraps between the team’s enforcers. And then there was the Doug Risebrough incident, when the Calgary forward, with his skates, shredded McSorley’s jersey in the penalty box.
Spector found that the players he interviewed were more open with their feelings than was the case two and a half to three decades ago.
“Hopefully what people will enjoy — because I did when I was writing them — are the different stories in the book, like what happened when McSorley speared Bullard, what happened when Risebrough tore up McSorley’s jersey and when Steve Smith scored that (own) goal.
“There’s a sort of statute of limitations on this stuff, but I found that when you’re interviewing these people 30 years later they’ll tell you a few things they didn’t tell you back then. You kind of do know when the story begins what you’re going to read, but we’re hoping that people are going to read some things and go ‘whoa, I didn’t know that it went quite that way.’”
Many of the tales have humorous overtones, a telling sign, according to Spector, that most of the players involved during the height of the Highway 2 battle were perhaps a little more buoyant than today’s NHL skaters. It was, indeed, a different time.
“Everybody had a few more laughs back then,” said the author. “They didn’t have charter planes, guys went out for a beer after the game and the average yearly salary wasn’t US $1.8 million.
“There was a little more hucksterism back then, someone always had a black hat or a white hat on. I’m not sure if we have that as much in the game now, if that’s fair to say.”
While the rivalry played out in many colourful scenarios, the calibre of the hockey was second to none, Spector noted. From 1983 to 1991, either the Oilers or Flames appeared in the Stanley Cup final, with the Oilers winning five Cups and coming up short in one final, and the Flames winning one and losing one.
In addition, the Flames/Oilers warfare featured the talented likes of Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Theo Fleury, Mike Vernon, Al MacInnis, Grant Fuhr, etc., etc.
“It’s funny, you and I and everybody in Central Alberta and all over the province watched that — the greatest hockey ever,” said Spector. “We didn’t know it at the time, but it was the greatest hockey we’re likely ever going to see. I wish we would have known it at the time, we would have appreciated it more.”
Spector, who will sign copies of his book from 2-4 p.m. Saturday at the Red Deer Chapters store, is convinced the NHL hasn’t produced a greater brand of competition since the heyday of … The Battle of Alberta.
“Especially hockey played at that level,” he said. “You talk about rivalries and you think about Montreal-Boston, you think about Montreal-Quebec City, the Rangers and Philadelphia … those are what we call the great rivalries.
“There are some great ones, but of a two-team rivalry no series sent a team to the Stanley Cup eight years in a row except for this one. With the level of hockey being played in that rivalry I would challenge anyone to come up with a statistic that tells me they watched a higher pedigree of hockey in another rivalry than Albertans watched in that day.”
Fleury wrote a foreword for the book and sums up his feelings about the project with his final sentence.
“This book should have been written a long time ago. Enjoy.”