It’s become a truism that history is written by the victors. When you consider that during the rollicking 1980s and early 1990s the Edmonton Oilers won five Stanley Cups and beat the Calgary Flames in four of five head-to-head playoff meetings, it’s actually quite appropriate that the definitive history of the Battle of Alberta is written by a guy from Edmonton that came up as a sportswriter via covering the Oilers of that era.
Mark Spector’s new book, the aptly-titled Battle of Alberta, is exactly what you would hope for in a book about hockey’s best non-Original Six rivalry.
The book is laid out more or less in linear fashion, with a bunch of chapters drilling down into specific topics in the lore of the Battle. Spector deftly handles the subject matter with a mixture of good humour and hindsight, pointing out occasional parallels between the 1980s rivalry and today’s more tame version. He’s at his best when working in the insane number of interview quotes he collected – Spector’s been at it for awhile, having gotten his start in Alberta’s capital working the NHL beat, and he gets quotes from everyone you’d hope he would, and a bunch from some surprising sources as well.
The best thing about the book is its focus. While Spector occasionally makes mention of contemporary players and subjects, the book’s fundamentally a drill-down into the 1980s classic Battle of Alberta between two of the NHL’s best squads. You get long explorations of Cliff Fletcher, Glen Sather, Mark Messier, Bob Johnson and other major figures – the final chapter is a look at Theoren Fleury and the 1991 knee-slide goal in Game 6 of the playoffs – but he also spends time discussing how the Battle impacted some lesser figures, and how some lesser figures impacted them.
A great example of this is an early chapter that spends a great deal of time discussing the background of former Flames defender Charlie Bourgeois. Spector discusses Bourgeois’s hockey career, his family background, and tells a fascinating story regarding Bourgeois’ father – a police officer who met a tragic end. The point is to get across to the reader just what motivated and molded the younger Bourgeois into the player he became. Spector delves into those kinds of details throughout the book and it’s those elements that elevate the project from a well-written historical recollection into something that really showcases the importance of the Battle of Alberta to the individuals who took part in it.
The chapters are all somewhat self-contained, which works well the majority of the time but occasionally leads to paragraphs that give a reader a minor case of deja vu, because you swear you’d read a part of that story before. The good thing is that this minor repetition does help at times where Spector wants to make a point, or where he reintroduces a person into the narrative – I swear, he comes up with five or six ways to refer to Alberta sportswriting legends Jim Matheson and George Johnson in the book, for example.
For those that never experienced the Battle of Alberta first-hand – myself, I was a bit young to recall the majority of the glory days – this book is a tremendously fascinating look back at a by-gone era. It’s occasionally tinted with a bit too much nostalgia and there’s a chapter on the journalist aspect of the Battle which may come across as too much inside baseball (I liked it), but it’s as well-written and balanced a reckoning of the rivalry as can probably be written. Any fan of the game that revels in stories about the olden days will have a grand old time digging into these pages.