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The Way I See It: The Battle of Alberta

I’m all for the jolt of animosity that’s been injected back into the Battle of Alberta by the beef between Zack Kassian and Matthew Tkachuk the last time the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames met. How that plays out tonight in the rematch, I don’t know.

While I’d have no problem with Tkachuk and Kassian squaring up and settling their differences, at least for the time being, with their gloves off, it really doesn’t matter in the big picture if it happens. While Tkachuk might earn some respect around the league for answering the bell, winning or losing a fight isn’t going to change the way he plays the game. 

As for Kassian, well, he already got his pound of flesh by tossing Tkachuk around and firing punches at the cowering Calgary forward in a response that spawned billboards, turtle T-shirts and much social media posing between the fanbases. Kassian’s reaction to two Tkachuk hits he didn’t like cost him a two-game suspension and included a perfect view of the winning goal in a 4-3 Calgary victory from the penalty box.

What I’m hoping for tonight, with the league having done its finger-wagging and having dispatched George Parros and a platoon of NHL Play Safety personnel to Rogers Place, is a physical, intense and entertaining game. What matters most, the standings tell us, is the two points on the line, not whether Tkachuk emerges from his shell with his gloves unglued.

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That, after some bravado in the wake of the original dust-up, is the way Kassian and the Oilers are playing it going into tonight.

JUST WIN

“It’s about the two points. That’s the way we’re going to stick it to them,” said Kassian, measuring his words. “Obviously if Tkachuk has the puck and I can hit him clean, I’m not going to pass on it, right? You guys are throwing twists and turns and building it up. I thought what happened on the ice, I handled it for the most part. I got punishment and that’s that.”

That’s a different tune than Kassian was singing after the initial incident Jan. 11, when he said, “He messed with the wrong guy. I don’t think he realizes that we’re in the same division and I have a great memory,” but it’s the smart way to play it going into tonight. You can’t call your shot with Parros and Company here.

“It’s about winning,” coach Dave Tippett said. “Think of it this way, if this was the first game of the playoffs, would you be out to try to settle scores? Zack understands that. Zack knows he doesn’t want to put our team in a bad position.” Translated, Tippett has made it abundantly clear to Kassian and everybody else getting the two points is more important than winning a rumble. 

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If the Oilers can manage to pull off both, I don’t imagine anybody with a ticket to the rematch is going to complain. The Flames come into tonight one point up after losing 5-4 in a shootout to the St. Louis Blues last night, but the Oilers have two games in hand. As satisfying as it might be to poke Tkachuk in the nose a time or two tonight, getting the points trumps getting even.

THE CONE OF SILENCE

The Oilers did a masterful job of controlling the message leading up to the release of the documentary Whatever It Takes, detailing the remarkable rehab Connor McDavid went through last summer to rehab his knee. That’s a diplomatic way of saying they covered up the truth about the severity of his injury until it suited them to come clean.

That’s prompted more than one person to suggest the media, local and national, whiffed by not getting the story – they didn’t ask the right questions. Having spent more than a few years around the rink, I’d suggest that’s not the case and that having such a big story go untold for so long illustrates just how far teams are willing to go to control the message. If teams want to lock something down, to keep it quiet, they can and they will.

I don’t for a second believe people covering the Oilers on a daily basis now didn’t ask multiple questions and lean on multiple sources to find out what was happening with McDavid. Same goes for the national media, who aren’t around the team but have eyes and ears everywhere. Who wouldn’t want that story?

The problem is in these days, when teams want only to spoon-feed the media by way of one message in one scrum, unless you have somebody willing to talk on the down-low, you aren’t getting the goods. Teams don’t want or allow reporters to contact players directly. Everything goes through the team. It wasn’t always like that, but it is now. Not an excuse, but a reality.

Reporters should never take what the teams says in situations like this at face value. The vast majority don’t. You ask questions and then you ask them again. You ask the same questions of multiple people to make sure you’ve got it right. I’ll bet the farm that was done last summer. Even then, if the team is determined to keep it quiet, sometimes you don’t get the story. 

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WHILE I’M AT IT

I just want to take a moment for a shout out to my friend Bryn Griffiths, who is in for the battle of his life after being diagnosed with stomach cancer last week.

Bryn, who spent more than 30 years on the air here and in Calgary, and also worked media relations with the Oilers and Winnipeg Jets, got the news after returning from the World Junior Championship. Bryn and I have been doing a podcast, The Outsiders, since August and he’s been producing several other podcasts. It has been a busy and fun time working together, but that’s on the backburner until he can get well.

You couldn’t hope to meet a more positive person than Bryn, who overcame kidney cancer just over a year ago. Bryn also works with the Cure Cancer Foundation, which operates to support the Cross Cancer Institute, so he knows what he’s up against. He swears he’ll beat this awful disease and we’ll back in the studio in no time. I’m going to hold him to that.