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Battle of Western Canada

The Jets, Oilers, Flames and Canucks all have a legitimate shot at the playoffs, signalling an NHL revival across Western Canada

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/3/2020 (195 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

EDMONTON — They're talking playoffs here in Edmonton, And for a change, that talk isn't cheap, as this storied franchise with a sorry recent past looks like a lock to return to the NHL's annual spring fling. There will be similar chatter later this week in Calgary and Vancouver, where the Winnipeg Jets will try to boost their own post-season chances on an all-important three-game, one-anthem road trip.

Fact is, all four Western Canadian teams have a legitimate shot this year at playing beyond the 82-game regular season, which would be a bit like spotting a unicorn on skates. It's only happened four times in NHL history, and you have to go all the way back to the 1985-86 season to find the last time the Jets, Oilers, Flames and Canucks all qualified to play for the Stanley Cup at the same time.

Back then, they were fierce rivals in the highly-competitive Smythe Division, with stars such as Dale Hawerchuk, Wayne Gretzky, Lanny McDonald and Stan Smyl leading the way. Much has changed since, with the 21-team league expanding to 31 (and soon-to-be 32) clubs, the Jets residing in a different division and the likes of Patrik Laine, Connor McDavid, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Pettersson as some of the big names fans now pay to see.

Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett, a native of Moosomin, Sask., said the passionate nature of Canadian hockey fans is what intrigued him about the job as head coach in Edmonton.

THE CANADIAN PRESS / JASON FRANSON

Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett, a native of Moosomin, Sask., said the passionate nature of Canadian hockey fans is what intrigued him about the job as head coach in Edmonton.

But what's old is new, and there's no question this year's hotly contested Western Conference playoff race with plenty of Canadian flavour has got the competitive juices flowing not just for fans in these hockey-crazed markets, but players and coaches, too.

Just look at Oilers first-year bench boss Dave Tippett, a product of Moosomin, Sask., who didn't even let me finish my question on the subject Wednesday morning before excitedly volunteering his thoughts.

"I think it's great for hockey in Western Canada. It's really jumped out at me this year. That's one of the reasons why this job was intriguing to me. You get into that passionate Canadian fan base. You watch the standings every day and it's such a big deal here," Tippett said a few hours before puck drop between Edmonton and Winnipeg at Rogers Place.

Winnipeg Jets' defenceman Dave Babych gets hold of Edmonton Oilers superstar Wayne Gretzky circa 1985.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets' defenceman Dave Babych gets hold of Edmonton Oilers superstar Wayne Gretzky circa 1985.

"As a Western Canada guy, the battle of Western Canada is fine with me."

Edmonton (37-24-9) began the night in the best position of the four clubs, sitting in second place in the Pacific Division. They seem destined to make the playoffs for just the second time in 14 years. Calgary (36-27-7) and Vancouver (36-27-6) are third and fourth in the division, with the Canucks holding down one of the two wild-card spots.

The Jets came into play Wednesday at 36-28-6 and tied with the Canucks. They may now be in different divisions, but all three stops this week will be the proverbial "four-pointers"

"It makes these games, a road trip like this, that much more fun to watch as a fan and that much more fun to play. There's so much on the line. All these teams are fighting for a playoff spot or multiple spots. So I think it's good for the game," said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey.

He grew up in Calgary cheering for the Flames and said it's great to see a potential return to the glory days of hockey in these cities — just as long as it doesn't come at the expense of his own club, of course.

Winnipeg Jets' Laurie Boschman ties up his man in the faceoff circle during a game against the Calgary Flames in the 80s.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets' Laurie Boschman ties up his man in the faceoff circle during a game against the Calgary Flames in the 80s.

"Obviously if we get in and the other Western Canadian teams don't I won't be too disappointed," Morrissey told me with a bit of a smirk. "Any time you're playing a Canadian team, the stakes are a little higher, the intensity's a little higher, the buildings are usually a little bit more rowdy."

There have been plenty of lean years over the past decade for Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. In the eight completed seasons since Jets 2.0 were born in 2011-12, they've made the playoffs three times (2014-15, 2017-18, 2018-19), the Oilers once (2016-17), the Flames three times (2014-15, 2016-17, 2018-19) and the Canucks three times (2011-12, 2012-13, 2014-15).

That's just 10 out of a possible 32 combined appearances in that span. In other words, all four organizations have had lots of time to polish their golf games every spring.

But now, not only is the present quite bright, but also the future. All four teams are built around relatively young, skilled cores, suggesting the window of opportunity for success should remain open.

Winnipeg Jets winger Paul McLean gets a shot on Vancouver Canucks goalie Glen Hanlon while Vancouver defenceman Harold Snepsts looking on.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets winger Paul McLean gets a shot on Vancouver Canucks goalie Glen Hanlon while Vancouver defenceman Harold Snepsts looking on.

"Maybe it's just a function of living in Canada. I will read far more on the Canadian teams than I will on the U.S. teams, because we deal with a different set of things. So I'm watching what the other coaches are saying, how they handle their media. It's a different animal up here," Jets coach Paul Maurice said Wednesday.

"There's more intense coverage, and there's a reason for that. The fans are wired into the Canadian teams, right? The occasional time I'll read an article and the comments are there... they rip on each other pretty good. This is really good for the game in Canada."

Maybe the only person not proudly waving the Maple Leaf on Wednesday was McDavid, who wasn't keen to sing the praises of his closest neighbours.

"I don't really care how other Canadian teams do," McDavid said in response to my question about whether players enjoy these sorts of national rivalries. He explained his only focus is on the Oilers, not what anyone else is doing.

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid says he could care less about Western Canada hockey rivalries.

(AP PHOTO/JEFFREY T. BARNES)

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid says he could care less about Western Canada hockey rivalries.

I'll cut McDavid a bit of slack for his rather curt reply, since it's clear there's still lots of hard feelings over the renewed hostilities in the Battle of Alberta, which have included no shortage of cheap shots and brawls this season. Perhaps that explains why he's not exactly giddy at the thought of facing a team like the Flames in April or May.

With just over three weeks left in the regular-season, nothing is certain at this point. The results of these head-to-head games will go a long way to deciding where everyone finishes.

But with continued strong play and maybe a little luck sprinkled in, they'll be talking playoffs not just in Edmonton, but also in Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. And wouldn't that be something.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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