- Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.
EDMONTON — There’s much at stake for the Oilers in these Stanley Cup playoffs. Just ask their fans.
Thousands of them gather in droves before each game all around Rogers Place. Every side street is filled to the brim. There’s a formal — and free — tailgate party set up across from the arena, boasting live music, a massive screen on which to watch the game and a line to get in snaking around the block hours ahead of the puck drop for last Sunday’s Game 3 of the Oilers’ second-round playoff series against the Calgary Flames.
It’s excitement enough that the Oilers are on a real postseason run; even better when they’re up against the Flames. For 31 years, fans waited for another playoff chapter in the fabled Battle of Alberta rivalry that’s as ubiquitous to the province as cattle farms. But the on-ice intensity of this round might turn out to be no match for the passion it’s fostering among some supporters.
“I told my wife, when Edmonton beats Calgary and wins the Stanley Cup, we have to name our kid Darnell [after Oilers’ defenseman Darnell Nurse],” said one tailgater before the Oilers’ 4-1 win in Game 3. “She already said I can’t have an [Oilers] tattoo, so I’m pushing for the name instead.”
What would he want in a tattoo exactly, given the opportunity?
“Just like a massive Oilers logo and then like some of the players’ faces around it. Nothing crazy,” he laughed. “I want people to know: this team is in our blood. They’re already a part of your family almost.”
That sentiment could also be extended to the greater Oilers’ community.
There’s nothing but orange and blue sweaters in sight on game night, amid a smaller, but healthy swath of red-and-black clad Flames faithful. Strangers pat one another on the back to a sturdy chorus of “Let’s go, Oilers!” kicking every few minutes. And it’s all against a backdrop of a pulsing bass from each direction, working like the nervous heartbeat of hockey devotees.
One Edmonton fan shows off her custom sweater, emblazoned not with a player’s last name but her mother’s. The keepsake was passed down from one generation to the next, along with a love of the game.
Elsewhere, Calgary fans engage in playful taunting with their Edmonton counterparts, proffering bets on how quickly each side will end the series. One promises a round of beers if Zack Kassian and Matthew Tkachuk drop the gloves in Game 3.
Outside the tailgate, a pair of friends draped in Oilers flags are marching up 102 Street yelling “I love you, Connor!” with such fanaticism, Edmonton’s captain might actually hear them inside the dressing room.
It’s pandemonium, in the best way. The atmosphere crackles with anticipation as warm-ups inch closer. On this day, the series is tied 1-1. The tension outside is real. It’s everything out-of-towners hoped for.
“We drove like four hours to be here,” said a 20-something fan who came with her roommate to tailgate Game 3. “As soon as we knew it was Edmonton and Calgary, we were like, ‘we’re going!’
“It’s special, you know? We hate Calgary. Calgary hates us. Only one team is going on [to the next round] and you don’t know how long [a playoff run] will last or what’s happening next but we’re here now and it’s fun to feel part of it and be around all this.”
Calgary had grand plans for its own second-round watch party.
But perhaps Mother Nature is an Oilers fan.
The Flames had to cancel their Red Lot tailgate ahead of Game 2 after a windstorm damaged the outdoor facilities, and calls of inclement conditions — think snow, more wind and sub-freezing temperatures — were in the forecast on game night.
Welcome to the unpredictability of mid-May Canadian weather.
Calgary was disappointed to pull the chute on its viewing party, but did invite fans to watch Game 3 — free of charge — from cushier confines inside the Saddledome. And they were back in business for Game 4 with the Red Lot fully running and operational.
That was a relief for Flames manager of events Dallas Kitt, who was instrumental in starting the outdoor viewing trend during the playoff run in 2019 that has only increased in popularity.
Calgary releases 5,000 free tickets to its events at 9 a.m. every game day. Tickets sell out in minutes.
“It was a way to give back to the community and [offer] an opportunity to experience what viewing a Flames game is like for those that aren’t fortunate enough to get tickets inside the building,” Kitt said. “During playoffs, tickets inside the Saddledome are really hard to come by, and everyone’s super excited to be inside. But we thought, ‘how can we bring this same energy outdoors, and be able to open it up to Calgarians to come and view that same experience?'”
The Red Lot centerpiece is a massive 40-foot TV screen, which Kitt jokes “feels like the biggest TV in Canada.” A goal horn sounds when the Flames score. Local celebrities and Flames alumni make appearances. A partnership with the Canadian Country Music Awards has led to country acts performing.
Basically, if Kitt & Co. do their job right, the entire evening is a nonstop party.
“It’s pretty fun during the intermissions and at any of the TV timeouts,” she said. “We actually do just get the crowd going and get the music going and what you see [of it] on the broadcast to what you actually experience in the Red Lot is pretty high-energy.”
Kitt refused to take all the credit, though. She puts the success of Calgary’s Red Lot firmly on the people who populate it, every bit as fervent about their team as those gathering up north in Edmonton.
“The fans honestly are making Red Lot what it is,” she said. “The energy and excitement is all on them. They are so pumped to be here and you just really feel it through the excitement and the noise. And we’re just really excited to have all that right outside the Saddledome and for people to look at that.
“It’s essentially the hottest ticket in town outside of the Saddledome. Everyone just wants to be there and be part of that energy.”
The chants reverberate for blocks around Edmonton’s Ice District.
“We want the Cup … We want the Cup…”
The Oilers won Game 3. They led the series 2-1 at the point.
Edmonton’s streets are packed with fans. Traffic is at a delighted standstill. The sun has not yet to set on a mild Sunday evening. Monday happens to be a holiday.
Who’s stopping now?
“We met in line at the [tailgate],” explains one fan, arm around another sporting identical Leon Draisaitl sweaters. “[Our group] saw him chirping with some Flames [fans] and so we started chirping and they were chirping at us, and it was pretty funny, actually. We watched the game together after that, so now we know we’re good luck too.”
Perhaps they all came back for Game 4.
Edmonton jumped to a 3-0 lead in the first period of that tilt, and then nearly let it slip away. Calgary pushed back to tie the score in the third but couldn’t hold off Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ second goal of the night, late in regulation. It was a dagger in the Flames’ 5-3 loss and sent them back to Calgary facing elimination in Thursday’s Game 5 (9:30 ET, ESPN).
It was during that third period as the Flames mounted their comeback that a Calgary sweater-clad fan proposed inside Rogers Place during a TV timeout — to an Oilers’ fan. They said yes. A house divided, ’til death do they part.
When the final horn sounded at Game 4, fans poured back to streets still bathed in twilight. Knowing the crush to come, someone wisely fenced off Wayne Gretzky’s nearby statue and beefed up security. The effigy had become as much jungle gym as a photo op in the aftermath of Game 3. And if the Oilers’ keep winning, the crowds project to keep growing.
Further down the block from Gretzky, people instead stop to take photos of two men hoisting their makeshift Cups engineered from garbage cans. Half a dozen friends are nearby belting “Sweet Caroline” at the top of their lungs. Someone else takes a video, laughing.
Continue into the heart of the Ice District and the only sound reverberating are car horns blaring loudly as fans egg on drivers. Passengers reach out from vehicles gridlocked in traffic to high-five jubilant pedestrians crisscrossing intersections. Everyone is patient. Everyone stays behaved. The honking, though, won’t cease for hours.
“I’ve never seen it like this before,” said one woman surveying the scene.
“I know,” responded her companion. “It’s madness.”
One hundred and eighty-six miles south in Calgary, the mood will be more somber. Those who gathered at Red Lot will feel robbed of a come-from-behind victory the Flames nearly completed. They’ll be worried already about what Thursday — and beyond — holds for their team’s future.
Calgary is still in it, though. As defenseman Rasmus Andersson put it after Game 4, who says the Flames can’t win three in a row? Teams have done it before; why not them?
And Calgary knows what’s waiting for it back home. Away from the tsunami of orange and blue will be a fiery volcano of red and black, ready to erupt once more in support of their beloved Flames.
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