BEREZAN ON THE BATTLE OF ALBERTA

At the height of the Battle of Alberta the Oilers and Flames were arguably the two best teams in the NHL, but sadly we only got to see them play in the Smyth final. Imagine how intense a Cup final would have been. It would have been crazy.

Fans and players of both teams have many great memories and some gut-wrenching ones as well. The "own goal" in game seven of the Smyth division final became memorable because it ended up being the series deciding goal, but most remember Steve Smith rather than the guy who got credit, Perry Berezan.

I caught up with Berezan prior to the final installment of the BOA and got his thoughts on the rivalry, past, present and future.

JG: How often have you replayed the 1986 Smyth division final game on TV?

PB: I’ve never watched the whole thing. I’ve seen that two‑minute clip. Steve Smith I think still spits on my picture when he sees it with that whole scenario. And other than that, I don’t think I’ve watched that whole game once. It is so weird. I think when you talk to the older guys too, our memories really fade, they really fade; and sometimes it’s almost better not to see the real product because you probably think it was better than it really was.

But the memories of that series more than anything after we won that Game Seven was coming back to Calgary, flying back, looking out of the plane and seeing thousands of people just off the tarmac outside of a make‑shift fence that they had for people, thousands of them going crazy.

That had to be ‑‑ well, that was certainly at the peak of the Battle of Alberta, and we have to just hope that it comes back. Because the only way it’s going to come back, I think, is if they play each other in the playoffs. It’s almost impossible to hate a team as much as we hated the Oilers and the Oilers hated us, it’s almost impossible unless you played them in the playoffs. Because the regular season, it just fades quickly.

JG: I’ve went on YouTube and I noticed a few line brawls and brawls seemed to happen in the last regular season game of the year, so even those late season regular season games meant a little bit more, didn’t they?

PB: You know, the Badger Bob era, the guy, he thought way too much, and he was so far ahead of his time with thinking. You mentioned the line brawl. I remember it was one of the last games we were playing the regular season in Edmonton, and, of course, the visiting team has to put in their starting lineup.

He liked to mess with Sather’s head and tick him off by delaying as long as possible before giving a starting lineup, and who does he start? Up front: Tim Hunter, Neil Sheehy, Nick Fotiu. That’s the starting three forwards, and I think we had Terry Johnson and Charlie Bourgeois on defence, our five toughest by far guys. 


So from the story I hear when they handed that over to Sather, Sather went ballistic when he saw because he delayed giving it to him. So Sather got it and went ballistic. Of course, he starts all his toughest guys, and what do they do? They dance right away. But that kind of stuff, can you imagine a coach doing that now? You’d be suspended.

JG: Which is in a sense, I think, a sad state of the game because none of the guys got hurt in those fights, but it sure got everybody’s attention to start the game.

PB: It did, and it fueled the Mike Bullard pretending to get speared from McSorley and then whispering to Bearcat when he came to him, “I’m good, just let me sit here for the while.” I mean, those types of things fueled all kinds of stuff.

Badger Bob was complaining that Glen had a better view from his bench in Edmonton because he had a higher step to see the game from. So Badger complained to the media that Sather was cheating by having a higher bench. He just did whatever it took to get in the craw of Glen, and he was looking for cracks. I mean, there weren’t very many cracks in that whole team, that armor of the Oilers at that time. They were just too good. So Badger’s way was to slowly poke you until you broke, and it was neat. 


Glen Sather had that demeanor that we all know, just that confident demeanor behind the bench, and Badger wanted to bust it. Can you think of one rivalry in sports now that’s even close to that?

JG: Nowadays coaches are more worried about every defensive system in the game. It’s more about that than it is about trying the mental battles or trying to win the emotional battle. I think that’s actually been taken out of the game. We don’t see as much raw emotion. Even you said, a simple thing like a higher bench, just trying to get in the head of the other coach by needling him is gone. Why?

PB: The coaches and everyone want to have everything professional. And we also know that if there’s anything done that’s not quite professional ‑‑ example, Ovechkin making a fire with his stick after scoring, like those kind of things ‑‑ then we get chastised for it.

So if the media and the fans beat up on anyone who tries to be different, then we’re never going to have anything different, and everything turns into vanilla, and I think the game needs less vanilla and more color. We’re trying to get rid of the whackos, and I understand that. But to still have passion in games, in order to get the passion, really, you have to have the hatred, sadly. 


And with that hatred, I’ll give you an example right now, a today example. Jarome Iginla plays at another level when he is ticked off at somebody. So if the Oilers want to keep him quiet, just leave him alone. But if you want to tick somebody off like Jarome where he wants to fight you and he starts to bark and get in your face, then that man plays at a level that you can’t stop. 


A little more anger will really be much more entertaining for us to watch, but I know the game and times have changed, and it’s really a lot harder. Referees are calling everything, and you’ve got Brendan Shanahan going to suspend everybody. So because of all the policing, we’re much more laid back; and with that laid back thing, it’s going to be more vanilla. And then we’ll complain, and then you just keep doing this vicious circle.


I want to see this rivalry come back, but sadly the only way it’s going to come back is when both teams meet in the playoffs. And Edmonton, I know they’re going to break out. 
There’s going to be a year where they break out and get there. But will the Flames be ready? Will they get in the playoffs so that we can see those two teams play each other? Certainly the odds are against it happening in the near future.

JG: When you played who were the guys that the you or the Flames hated on the Oilers? Gretzky obviously was so good, but who were the guys you just hated playing against?

PB: Well, McSorley, McClelland were at the top, but you know what, the number one pain in the arse wearing an Oiler’s jersey was Tikkanen, by far. Probably Glenn Anderson came number two. But Tikkanen was enough of a… the first thing out of my mouth was an idiot on the ice.

He was such a good player because he had good hands, he could finish and he could skate. But it’s like the guy was on a different social level on the ice than everybody else. You couldn’t understand a word he said. You’d get a face wash completely out of the blue from the guy or a cheap shot, and then he wouldn’t break when any of our tough guys would try to go after him. There was nothing you could do that would break the guy. 


And I don’t know if Tikkanen ever actually fought. So that was another good thing if you want to be a pest, never fight anybody. If you never fight anyone, it’s the greatest thing.


I mean, Claude Lemieux was right up there in the NHL at that time. He was probably the number one NHL pest, but Tikkanen by far was the guy that all of us at some point just wanted to kill. At the same time, he was so valuable to that team because he could do it all defensively, offensively, and being a pest.

JG: Right now Curtis Glencross kind of brings that element. He’s got 25 goals for the Flames, and he makes no bones about the fact that he puts a target on Nugent‑Hopkins and Hall early in games and gives them that little stick here or there that just tries to get a guy off their game. He’s a skilled pest isn’t he?

PB: And you gotta try it because you see with – especially against that young core talented core of the Oilers. I know fans there are impatient, and they want things to turn over, but believe me, the rest of the hockey world people are thinking: At some point, this team’s going to be amazing.

But you’re not going to get a suspension by poking someone to death. Instead of spearing somebody or hitting them from behind and getting booted out of the game, if you poke them to death, you can get them off their game, and Shanahan can’t suspend you, and the referee can’t put you in the penalty box.

And that whole needling, the old Oiler team, if you even looked at Gretzky the wrong way, every single player that came off that bench for the rest of the game would threaten to kill you. So that mentality that the old Oiler team had made it impossible for anyone ‑‑besides a guy like Neil Sheehy, I guess he was the biggest pest at that time for Wayne Gretzky ‑‑ but it made everyone think twice about doing something to those star players. This current Oiler team is going to have a lot of star players. And they’re going to have to get players, even if they’re not the big tough guys, just to make sure that the other team knows, you mess with our guys, every single person gets in their face and says: When I get my opportunity, I’m going to kill you. For most guys if they hear it enough, it really gets in your head and makes you think twice.

JG: Do you have a memorable fight of two guys when it was just a slobber knocker back and forth where you were thinking, ‘Man, that was awesome to watch’?

PB: Two of them ‑‑ well, actually three of them. There was one in Edmonton, Peplinski and Messier where they were just chins down, and it was one of those where they just keep punching each other in the head at the same time and keep going and going like the old Rock’em Sock’em video games. And after the game seeing Mark’s forehead as he walked by with welts all over it thinking, ‘Boy, it’s a tough thing to do to Mark’s head.’ And Pep didn’t look very good either. That fight was amazing.

When Doug Risebrough and McSorley went at it ‑‑ of course, the cutting of the jersey incident where Riser decided to carry McSorley’s jersey back into the penalty box and step all over it into shreds ‑‑ because that fight lasted forever.

And there was another one where we had Stu Grimson and he fought Dave Brown, and Brown beat the living you‑know‑what out of him. That’s the fight where you just looked at Grimson after and thought I really don’t know how those guys do it.

We’ve talked about usually nobody gets hurt in a fight, and that’s true. In all of those line brawls it didn’t happen. Tim Hunter didn’t hurt a lot of people, but Tim Hunter was hard to beat. But a Dave Brown would finish your career with one punch. So that’s where I think when they talk about people really getting hurt in fights, the Dave Browns of the world are going to ‑‑ there are still some of the those guys left in the league, there aren’t many, but there’s some of those that all it takes is one punch, and you’re done.

JG: Did you ever meet Brown off the ice? Because he looked like a doctor with his glasses and just a calm guy.

PB: Well, so did Stu Grimson, which is hilarious, because Grimmer is a lawyer down in Nashville. The guy is as smart and as studious as they get and wore his glasses, both those guys.

To think the tough guy role and how difficult it is, it really is extremely difficult, and how much anxiety is built up with those guys before every game. That old Oiler‑Flames rivalry, every game all of us had that anxiety in us, every player, because you knew you were taking on every Oiler. And the Oilers in a lot of ways knew, especially in those 80s years, they knew that they were taking on every Flame. And that mentality was on of, no one was alone out there, you’re never alone.

I remember one of my first games playing the Oilers, and McSorley was beaking at me because I don’t know what I did, who knows what I did, he was beaking at me. He said he was going to kill me. And I looked at him like: Who are you? Like, whatever. I’m beaking back telling him I’m not afraid of him. 


So Peplinski comes and sits beside me after that shift he goes, You know, Perry, I can take Marty for you, if you want. I said, I’m not afraid of him. He goes, You better be. I didn’t know who the heck Marty McSorley was and should have been afraid of him. (laughs) 


If you are afraid of any of the beaking, the talking, if you’re afraid of that early, you’re not going to play. You’re useless. And I think again a lot of these players now coming out of junior, there’s still a ton of beaking, but there’s not much substance to back it up because they’ve taken most of it out of the game, which is probably a good thing.

But if you can get inside the head of another team. The Vancouver Canucks in a lot of ways are probably the most hated team in the league. Would you agree?

JG: Yes, it seems that way.

PB: And that’s probably a really good thing going into the playoffs because it doesn’t take them much to get another team off their game. They’re too busy worried about, I want to kick your butt instead of we’ve gotta play, we’ve gotta score goals. So the Canucks right now have that edge of you just don’t like them.

And every team kind of needs that edge. Regular season, playoffs, if you can’t play with an edge, you can’t get your game to another psychological level. And that passion that comes out ‑‑ to me, the passion that comes out takes you from fourth gear to fifth gear. And if you don’t have the fifth gear, you can’t play in the league.


I’ll give you a perfect example of a guy who’s never seen fifth gear ‑‑ well, maybe he saw it a couple of times, and that was René Bourque. A ridiculous talent. He’s got the perfect body, can skate, can shoot, he’s tough. But you get him on the ice, and if his heart rate gets up above 150, a warning light goes off, and he backs right off. He doesn’t ever play with an edge and with a lot of passion.


That’s all we want from players as fans and as coaches and everyone who’s watching hockey. All we want is to see a player play with passion. It doesn’t matter if they’ve got the most skill. Tim Jackman for the Flames right now, he plays with passion every shift. So the fans love him, the coaches love him, he just got an extension and a nice contract. 


There’s a ton of talent on that Oiler team today, and those kids when they play well, they play with a ton of passion. And I think that’s what we all want see, but you want to see it consistently.

JG: There was always lots of talk about no one wanting to hit Gretzky because the League wouldn’t let him or they were scared of Semenko. You were the biggest rival of the Oilers. Was that ever discussed, or is that a big myth?

PB: No, no, no. First of all, it was very difficult to hit him. And if you did there were guys that would come after you right away. Neil Sheehy, he just got in his face, and he grabbed him, and he’d throw him down, and he just didn’t care. But if you didn’t care at all, about the repercussion, you might have had some opportunities to hit him.

I think there had to have been a psychological thing of, number one, if you tried to hit him, he was going to embarrass you and two if you did luckily get him, then you’d have to face the piper. Badger, actually, his whole philosophy with us and it took a couple of years, but he says, I know a way to stop Gretzky. Let’s watch it.

He had tape after tape, and he showed us how he loved to come in on the right side. And if the defenceman backed off, and then you took the boards away, he would spin, and then he would hit Kurri or Coffey as the late guys, and that’s how they’d get their points. 


So his thing was just back off, be soft. Allow him to enter the zone, allow him to turn to the boards and spin. Then just hold him there. Don’t rush to try to stop him one-on-one because he’ll beat you. Just hold him there, and everyone pick up a trailer. If he has no one to pass to, there’s no threat, and five-on-five that really gave us a ton of confidence. 


But how do you stop him? It was almost impossible to stop the guy. Could you hit him? There were times, sure, but I think there was a lot of stuff psychologically going on inside a guy’s heads — I could lay him out, but am I going to be embarrassed, and am I going to get killed? We’re still human beings, and I think that was in everyone’s head.

  • #94 sized hole where my heart used to be...

    That was an awesome interveiw. I wish the old time hockey was still alive. Non of this diving, whinning, pussification stuff. Rivalries were way better back then. Although the Chicago and Vancity rivalry is still alive and well and I cheer like heck for Chicago everytime.

  • Really makes me nostalgic for old time hockey. We always rail on guys like Avery and Ott, and they were a dime a dozen back then. And they could play. The Risebroughs, the Tikannens, the Linesmans, the Peplinskis, guys who could do it all.

    You never see that passion anymore, and that one on one coaching battle is virtually non existent.

    In so many ways today’s game is better than back then, but there’s definitely a huge degree of what made hockey back then so fun that’s missing today. It’s beaten out of the game by the media who wants characters but chides them when they act accordingly, and by coaching systems that stifle any creativity, and by stricter league standards on what is considered appropriate conduct on and off the ice.

    Is it better? I don’t know, maybe, but it never seems to be as fluid and exciting as it was in those days. Colour me nostalgic.