Today's Subject: Sandor, Steven. The Battle of Alberta: A Century of Hockey’s Greatest Rivalry.
Representative Soundbite: “But each and every Oiler and Flame agrees on one thing: that there is nothing in hockey, nor will there ever be, anything quite like the Battle of Alberta.” (115)
After my The Game-throwing incident, I thought maybe it would be best for me to choose a book with somewhat less, uh, emotional relevance. Something new, something I knew nothing about, something that wouldn’t affect me personally. Something Western Conference. Something like The Battle of Alberta.
It must be said, from the beginning, that The Battle of Alberta is not great literature. I don’t think it’s ever going to get a cover blub declaring it the best of anything. It’s a short, direct book with a journalistic feel. The prose is spare and bubbly, low-key writing that is enlivened primarily by the author’s palpable enthusiasm for his topic. If you’re looking for really entertaining writing on the same general subject, you might be better off with, well, The Battle of Alberta.
Sandor takes a strict chronological approach, starting with the first hockey game played in the province (1893) and ending with the uncertainty of the 2004-2005 lockout. The first half, which traces pretty much every form of amateur and professional hockey played in Edmonton/Calgary through 1963, is primarily an exercise in archival research. Reading it is kind of like sitting around with a really hardcore hockey-history buff who feels he’s uncovered a whole bunch of fantastic, forgotten material. It’s interesting, but it can also be a bit tedious. Many of the players involved, although famous in their own way at the time, have fallen into obscurity, and many of the teams only survived a couple of years before moving, folding, changing names, or other such things. It can be confusing, especially given the penchant in hockey for recycling team names. The attention to detail becomes a bit frustrating- he covers a lot of these early contests with micro-precision, including numerous recaps of specific games. Which isn’t exactly bad, except that only the most passionate fans are going to care about exactly what the ice conditions were like during the 1933 WCHL playoff series between the Edmonton Eskimos and the Calgary Tigers.
In the second half, however, Sandor comes into the modern era, the Oilers and the Flames, and switches gears to oral history. Although this is probably the subject that most people are looking for when they pick up this book, it’s a trickier thing to write, because for something so recent, something that everyone remembers, Sandor has to find a way to bring something new to the table- it would hardly be sufficient to just recount what happened and when. So he turns the bulk of the text over to the voices of people who were actually involved. He interviewed a couple dozen ex-players, coaches, trainers, and managers from the 80s, and mostly he lets them characterize the games in specific and the rivalry in general. For most hockey fans, it’s probably fun to hear these guys looking back on games and series that everyone remembers, but for me, it was great just to finally figure out who some of these people were. Most of them are so famous that no one ever feels the need to explain what exactly they did, meaning I know pretty much nothing about them except that they were good enough at something to be famous. It’s useful, then, to hear them sum up who they were and what they did in their own terms.
If you could criticize the book for anything, it could be for taking rivalry- in its own words, the greatest rivalry- as its subject without offering much insight or thought about the nature of rivalry. Sandor tells you the content of the rivalry, the things that happened, the way it affected fans and players, but he fails to get very deep into what makes a rivalry, what sustains it, and even what exactly it is.
In fact, the section of the book on the glory days of the Oilers/Flames rivalry is a huge mess of insane paradox. Both Sandor and the players he interviews are constantly contradicting each other and even themselves. Fusing the whole thing into one sentence: It was a great rivalry because it was personal and everyone hated each other really intensely except when they didn’t because they’re just doing their jobs and even though they loathed each other they also sort of respected each other and there was a sense of honor kind of but they also spent a lot of time whacking each other from behind with sticks and there was a lot of fighting but it was good fighting because the tough guys only went after other tough guys well except for when they were going after the other team’s stars but it wasn’t planned like it is today except for when it was and anyway the fighting wasn’t really the point because it was all about scoring back then and they both played a similar style of hockey but also completely different and everything was wide open except when somebody was trapping but there wasn’t hooking and holding and stickwork and dirty stuff like there is today but man sometimes they did some really dirty stuff that people are still arguing about but… oh just trust me, it was really cool.
In the end, it’s not Sandor’s fault that he can’t really analyze the rivalry, because sports rivalries are strange phenomena, the most affectionate form of hatred in the world. Even the players don’t seem to really understand what was going on in their own heads, whether it was fun or excruciating, a party or a war, some inexplicable combination of both. The soundbite at the beginning is an apt summary, because after all the quotations and anecdotes, and all the history, that’s all the book really says: there’s nothing in hockey quite like the Battle of Alberta. And after 196 pages of evidence, I believe it.