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Prince George Cougars coach Mark Lamb earned his NHL stripes in 1991 Battle of Alberta

Vicious and violent playoff between Flames and Oilers 'the most physical series probably anybody has ever played in.'

Bitter hatred and mutual respect.

For Mark Lamb that pretty much sums up the brutal Battle of Alberta in 1991.

At the time, Lamb was a 26-year-old centre at the height of his NHL playing career with the Edmonton Oilers and he was already well-versed rivalry between the two cities, which transcended sports into virtually every facet of life for residents of the two cities.

Calgarians grew up hating everything Edmonton while Edmontonians detested all that Calgary stood for. It dates back to 1905, when Alberta was formed and the federal Liberal government chose Edmonton as the province’s capital city and the year after that, when the Edmonton suburb of Strathcona was chosen over Calgary as the site of the University of Alberta.

On the football field, the Stampeders-Eskimos rivalry and the teams that predated them in the early years of the province gave fans in both cities a chance to express their passionate dislike for each other. The Edmonton Flyers and Calgary Stampeders brought senior hockey into the act in the mid ‘40s and that continued in junior hockey in the late ’60s when the the Oil Kings and Centennials began brawling in the rinks in both cities.  When the Flames franchise shifted from Atlanta to Calgary in 1980 it created instant animosity towards the Oilers, their closest NHL rivals, which would 11 years later breed the hatred that would spill over into one of the most violent and vicious playoff series in NHL history.

“That series was the most physical aggressive and emotional series I’ve every been part of,” said Lamb, now the head coach and general manager of the Prince George Cougars. “It was the most physical series probably anybody has ever played in, and it was just the makeup of those two teams and the hatred. It was all so natural because that’s the way everybody played.

“The rivalry is not just hockey, it’s ramped up in everything, the Eskimos (now Elks), the Stampeders, it’s so close with two major cities and there’s been a competition since they’ve been cities and people talk about it, how they hate Calgary. You’re playing Calgary? Kill ‘em! And they’re the same way. That’s the competitive nature of Calgary-Edmonton.”

In 1991, players on both teams weren’t just trying to win, they were trying to inflict pain - whatever it took to move on to the next round. They hacked each other with their sticks Bobby Clarke-style, hoping the hardwood they held in their hands might actually break a bone and sideline an opponent for the rest of the series and they stuck out their elbows and shoulders whenever they thought they could get away with it. The rules on clutching and grabbing that would draw penalties in today’s NHL didn’t exist and referees tended to look the other way in the playoffs and let the players settle their own scores.   

The Oilers had already won five Stanley Cups in the previous seven years and that added fuel to the Calgary fire.

“I think Calgary, from their perspective, everybody thought Edmonton, those good teams, were really cocky and arrogant and that was around the whole league too,” said Lamb. “Glen Sather was the leader giving Calgary fans the (fist salute). He was a cocky guy and that made the rivalry really good. Calgary wanted to be Edmonton and to win a Stanley Cup they had to go through the Oilers.

“Glenn Anderson was dirty and mean. And he was so good, so competitive. He would get out of control and accidentally on purpose knock your head right off. His stick would get flying and it looked like he was off-balance, but he was actually doing it on purpose. He’d go to the net and knock the goalie right out as soon as somebody pushed him, and that’s why they changed some of the rules.”

The Flames were at the time two years removed from their 1989 Stanley Cup championship and they were still a powerhouse, finishing with 100 points as Smythe Division regular season champions, 20 points ahead of the second-place Oilers. Edmonton beat the favoured Flames 3-1 in Game 1 in Calgary, but the Flames rebounded in Game 2 with a 3-1. The Oilers took the next two games in Edmonton, 4-3 and 5-2, and headed back to Calgary with a chance to eliminate the Flames but Calgary won Game 4 5-3 and the teams went back to Edmonton for Game 6. The teams were tied 1-1 until the 4:40 mark of overtime when Theo Fleury stripped the puck from Mark Messier just outside the Flames blueline and raced in alone to beat Grant Fuhr with his shot. Fleury, the Flames leading pointgetter in the season, hadn’t scored in the playoffs until that point and he celebrated with his famous rink-length slide on both knees.

“Everyone was so darn beat up and we needed to end that game and sure enough, Fleury scores and we’re going back to Calgary,” said Lamb. “You wanted to hurt people, if you could hit them and hurt their shoulder or something like that, you get their best players out of the game and you get a chance to win. They were trying to get Mess out, and why wouldn’t they.”

A multitude of players on both teams sat with icebags attached to their wounded bodies for the plane trip back to Calgary for Game 7. The Flames jumped out to a 3-0 lead 16 minutes into the game and Oilers coach John Muckler’s timeout had the desired effect when Esa Tikkanen scored his first of three goals a couple minutes later with a shot from the blueline to give the Oilers some life heading into the intermission. Early in the second period, Anderson made it 3-2 and Lamb assisted on Tikkanen’s tying goal midway through the period. Anatoli Semenov gave Edmonton its first lead four minutes into the third period and that stood until Ron Stern tied it with about two minutes left, setting up overtime. It didn’t last long. About seven minutes in, Tikkanen carried the puck into the Calgary zone on a 1-on-4 rush and let go a shot that deflected off the leg of Flames defenceman Frank Musil into the net behind goalie Mike Vernon for a 5-4 Oiler win.

“That game’s on TV all the time and if you see at the end of the game everyone’s jumping on the ice cheering and Messier, who is usually the first guy in the pile, is the last guy off the bench, with his knee (injury) he could hardly get out there,” said Lamb. “To win that series was so special because it was so hard. That could have been the Stanley Cup final right there.”

The Oilers went on to beat the Vancouver Canucks in the second round before their season ended in the Stanley Cup semifinal with a five-game loss to the Minnesota North Stars.

From d-man to pivot, Lamb strikes Stanley Cup gusher

Now 57, Lamb was born in Ponteix, Saskatchewan and grew up on a cattle farm near Cadillac, 50 kilometres south of Swift Current. He came from a rodeo family and he did the roping events but also rode some bulls in Little Britches rodeos. Lamb’s junior career started in the SJHL as a 16-year-old defenceman with the Swift Current Broncos in 1980-81 and he finished the season in the WHL with the Billings Bighorns. In his second WHL season, coach Russ Farwell converted Lamb into a centre who put up 45 goals and 101 points in ’81-82. The team moved to Nanaimo that summer and Farwell, as GM of the Medicine Hat Tigers, swung a mid-season deal to acquire the high-scoring Lamb, who had been drafted as a defenceman by the Flames in 1982 in the fourth round.

Coming off a 59-goal, 136-point season his final year of junior with the Tigers, Lamb turned pro in 1984 and continued to be prolific scorer with the Flames’ AHL affiliate in Moncton, but he played just one game for Calgary.. He attended four Flames training camps, two as a d-man, two as a centre, but was unable to crack the lineup.

He signed as a free agent with Detroit in 1986 and continued to produce at a point-per-game pace in the AHL. That earned him several callups to the Red Wings, and he played 11 playoff games in 1987 until the Wings were eliminated in the Western Conference in five games by the Oilers, who went on to win the Stanley Cup that year. The Oilers picked him up on waivers just before the ’87-88 season started.     

“It was right after training camp and I walked in the dressing room that year and they had the Stanley Cup in the room,” said Lamb. “It was as intimidating as hell. I played in Detroit the year before and we got to the Final Four against Edmonton, and that’s one of the reasons they picked me up, because they’d seen me play in the playoffs.

“I played a couple games and was there for a month and got sent down.”

The Oilers were already stacked at centre with Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Krushelniski and Craig MacTavish already in place as they loaded up for their fourth championship season. Lamb was limited to just two NHL games with the Oilers that year but led the Nova Scotia/Cape Breton Oilers in scoring two consecutive seasons. The door opened for Lamb when Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of 1988. Lamb played 20 regular season games and six of the seven playoff games before the Oilers were ousted from the 1989 playoffs in the first round by Gretzky and the Kings.

“I was a good team player and I played hard,” said Lamb. “I was a fourth line guy who could win face-offs, really good on the forecheck and I was physical. When I got to Edmonton they would move me up and down all over the place. I was their leading scorer down in the minors all the time and with Slats (coach Glen Sather) you never knew, all of a sudden if he thought you were playing good he’d put you on the point on the power play.”

Messier was the Oiler captain and he made sure to invite all the younger players on the team over to his house, providing pre-game meals and including them and their families on team functions or going out for drinks or to a restaurant.

“Everybody did the same thing as a team, it didn’t matter who you were, it was everybody, it was so easy, they were way ahead of their time in taking care of people,” said Lamb. “They didn’t do that in Detroit. I learnt so much about winning and what it takes to win through Edmonton, and it was right through Slats. He was a real motivator, a real good bench coach, and John Muckler was more the practice guy, more the technician.”

Cup run culminated in Boston

In his Cup-winning season, the five-foot-nine, 179-pound Lamb played 58 games with Edmonton and scored 12 goals and 28 regular-season points and was a key ingredient in the Oilers’ playoff run to their fifth championship, collecting six goals and 11 assists for 17 points in 22 games.

The Oilers almost lost in the first round, recovering from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Winnipeg Jets in seven games. Edmonton then swept L.A. in the Smythe Division final, beat Chicago 4-2 in the conference final and defeated Boston 4-1 in the final. The first game of that series, a 3-2 Oiler win, ended 15:13 into overtime when Petr Klima scored. It’s still the longest Stanley Cup final game in NHL history and the game was delayed several times when the lights went out at Boston Garden. Edmonton won the next game 7-2. The teams split the next two games in Edmonton and the Oilers came back and clinched the fifth Cup title in team history with a 4-1 win in Boston in Game 5.

The following year, Minnesota beat the Oilers in the semifinals and in 1992 they fell in the semis to Chicago. Lamb played for the Oilers from 1987-92, until he was selected by the Ottawa Senators in the expansion draft. In a nationally-televised game in Montreal, Lamb suffered his scariest injury when he checked Kirk Muller of the Habs from behind and put his stick through his legs just as he was about to accept a pass from behind the net. Muller lost his balance and his skate came up and cut Lamb from his cheek to the top of his neck. He needed more than 100 stiches to close the wound and the doctor did the job in the dressing room. Lamb played in he rematch the following day in Ottawa wearing a cage.

After two enjoyable seasons in Ottawa he was traded to Philadelphia and spent a year with the Flyers before being sent to Montreal. He ended his career in Germany and the International Hockey League, leading the Houston Aeros is scoring three of those last four seasons from 1995-2000 and he won the Turner Cup IHL championship in 1999.

In his 16-year career he played in 403 NHL regular season games and totalled 46 goals and 146 points, and also racked up 70 playoff games, collecting seven goals and 19 assists for 26 points.

“The thing I’m most proud of is obviously the Stanley Cup, but I got 70 playoff games, which is almost a full season,” he said. “I had lots of success in the NHL playoffs, I got to the Final Four four times.”

Coaching duty calls

Lamb was reunited with Oiler head coach MacTavish and GM Kevin Lowe in 2000 when he was hired as player development coach in 2000 and he was there for two years. He joined the Dallas Stars in 2002 and spent six years as an assistant to head coach Dave Tippett, his former Philadelphia teammate. Lamb returned to the WHL to take over as head coach and general manager of the Swift Current Broncos from 2009-16 and served as head coach the AHL Tucson Roadrunners for the 2016-17 season before he landed his position in Prince George.

Lamb was hired as general manager of the Cougars in June 2018 and took on the head coaching duties in February 2019, a dual position he’s held ever since. He guided the Cougars into the playoffs for the first time in five years and they were eliminated in four games by the Portland Winterhawks.

“I’m so glad we made the playoffs this year, so they can see it and feel it,” he said. “Now we’re over that hump of no playoff experience and these young guys could end up with a lot of playoff games in their careers. It’s way more physical and it’s playing for keeps because you want to win so bad. That’s playoff hockey and people go, ‘Why don’t you play like that in the regular season,’ and you just can’t.”

Battle of Alberta renewed, Lamb’s heart lies with Oilers

The Flames and Oilers renew hostilities tonight with Game 3 in Edmonton (5 p.m. PT). Lamb’s heart is telling him the Oilers will win the series but his head says the Flames are the better team and will prevail. The Flames won a wild first game 9-6 but were unable to stop Connor McDavid in Game 2 on Friday and lost 5-3.

“I’s going to be great,” said Lamb. “I thought, if the Flames won (Friday) I could be a sweep, then I’m going, I might be able to get back there to (to Edmonton) to go to a game next weekend.

“When you look at how they’re built and the strengths of their team, Calgary really seems like an overwhelming team to play in playoffs. But then you look at Edmonton’s side and if you don’t get McDavid caged, and I’m not sure anybody can when he’s like this, that’s going to cause Calgary a lot of problems, and he has already. But I feel in playoffs any time, any team can win. It happens all the time. I hope Edmonton wins and I hope they move on.

“The series keeps us thinking back to ’91, so I like that part too,” he said. “I see the mountain that they’re up against but I see the team I played on in Edmonton that wasn’t favoured that had to climb that mountain and get over top of it too.”