The Battle of Quebec

Mattieu Gallant

From 1979 to 1995, the Montreal Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques fought, what was dubbed, the Battle of Quebec. For fifteen years these two hockey teams divided the province through their on ice tilts. Everybody took sides and family were divided as their favorite warriors battled courageously on the ice. Hockey fans all across "La Belle Province" hoped their side would prevail so they would have a mental advantage at school or at work the following morning. More than a normal hockey rivalry, the Battle of Quebec was a social phenomenon that greatly influenced the province during the 1980s and the first part of the 1990s.

Now, 15 years after the departure of their beloved Nordiques, the citizens of Quebec City are closer than ever to getting their team back. The Nordiques' return would immediately reignite the rivalry with their Montreal counterparts. As both sides of "l'autoroute 20" patiently await the return of the Nords, let's revisit the old Montreal/Quebec rivalry.


The WHA years

The Quebec Nordiques made their debut in the World Hockey Association (WHA), a league created to rival the NHL, during its inaugural season in 1972. The most legendary Montreal Canadien of all time, Maurice "Rocket" Richard, coaching the new team for its first two games before resigning. Another popular member from "La Sainte-Flanelle", Jean-Claude Tremblay, jumped ship and became the Nordiques first star player. In 1973, two other Canadiens, Serge Bernier and Réjean Houle, joined the Fleurdelisée.

On the ice, the team enjoyed some success and reaching their peak in 1976-1977 when the Nordiques captured the WHA equivalent of the Stanley Cup, the AVCO Cup. During the same season, the Montreal Canadiens, coming off the best regular season in their glorious history - the only lost 8 games out of 82 -- won the second of four consecutive Stanley Cups. This simultaneous success drove the people of Quebec City into thinking that their team could beat the mighty Habs if they were to play each other. That thought was quickly ridiculed in Montreal since the two teams played in different leagues at that time. The loyal supporters of both those great teams would never know which one was truly the best. However, the two fan bases would soon be able to see their favorite teams battle on the ice as the Quebec Nordiques as well as the Hartford WhalersWinnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers would join the NHL for the 1979-1980 season.

The Stastnys


Even with the amazing rookie season Michel Goulet gave them, the Quebec Nordiques were unable to qualify for the NHL playoffs in their first year in the league. They finished 5th in their division and were forced to be spectators as the New York Islanders won their first of four Stanley Cups.

Unable to accept the failure of his team's first season, Quebec Nordiques' president Marcel Aubut worked hard to accomplish what many still consider to this day as a miracle; he orchestrated the defection of two of the best Czechoslovakian hockey players, young forwards Anton and Peter Stastny. A year later, during the summer of 1981, their older brother Marian would join them in "La Vieille Capitale" and as a line they became a central piece of the Montreal/Quebec rivalry.

Peter Stastny, the best of the three brothers, instantly becamethe player the franchise desperately needed. During the high scoring 1980s, only Wayne Gretzky registered more points than him.

The 4 playoff series

vendredi saint.jpg Like any other rivalry, the Battle of Quebec really took off when they met in the playoffs. The two rivals met five times (1982, 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1993) with the Habs edging the Nordiques three times out of five.

1982: The Canadiens won the Adams division that year and edged the Nordiques by 27 points. Having finished first and fourth, respectively, in their division, the two teams were scheduled to play each other. The highly favoured Habs easily beat the Nordiques 5-1 in game one before losing the next two games. Montreal reorganized and managed to destroy Quebec 6-2, forcing an ultimate fifth game . The game was tied 2-2 after the third period and overtime was needed to determine the winner. Dale Hunter, one of Quebec's feistiest players, scored a memorable goal giving the edge to his team and emerging as the first hero of this famous rivalry.

1984: That year, Montreal and Quebec met in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Both were underdogs in the first round series and emerged on top setting a date with each other in the Adams division finals. Contrary to their first playoffs meeting, Quebec was the favorite in 1984 but they did not advance to the next round.

This playoff series captured its place in history not for the actual games but for the infamous brawl that occurred during game 6 at the Montreal Forum. While facing elimination, the Nordiques took the lead 2-0 after two periods before all hell broke loose. At the end of the second period a major brawl started and every player on each team took part of it. After several minutes of fighting, the hostilities were stopped and both teams went back to their dressing rooms. When they came back for the third period, fighting resumed and Quebec's best player, Peter Stastny, was ejected from the game. The Habs capitalized on that and scored five goals in a row to eliminate their provincial rivals.

The brawl was nicknamed the "Good Friday Massacre" and is still considered to this day as the emblematic moment in the Battle of Quebec.

1985: The next year, both teams fought for the division during the regular season. Montreal finally emerged on top and after both team prevailed in the first round, they met, once again, in the second round of the playoffs. This time, the Nordiques would vanquish their opponents in seven games. Peter Stastny, who had not been able help his team in the third period of game 6 the previous year, would complete his personal revenge in overtime by scoring the series clinching goal during game seven at the Montreal forum.

1987: In a season in which Marcel Aubut established Quebec as a city of innovators by inviting the Soviet National Team to play against a collection of NHL all-stars in what was named "Rendez-Vous 87",  his team would also face its biggest rival in the playoffs. This time, Montreal prevailed in seven games. It was during this series that the now infamous Alain Côté's goal was disallowed by referee Kerry Fraser. To this day, it is still one of the most talked about aspects of the Quebec/Montreal rivalry. Fans of both teams still argue if the goal should have been allowed or not. Quebec's coach Michel Bergeron, now an analyst for Montreal games, still claims that the goal should have counted and that his team should have won the series

1993: After missing the playoffs for five consecutive years, the Nordiques finally made it back to the playoffs in 1993. In their way , once again, was their bitter rivals the Montreal Canadiens. Led by the youthful enthusiasm of Joe Sakic, Owen Nolan and Mats Sundin, the Nordiques won the first two games of the series. After game two Daniel Bouchard, the goalie coach for Quebec and former Nordiques goaltender, declared that he had found Patrick Roy's, weakness. Frustrated by the remark, Roy, Montreal's star goalie, raised his level of  play and won the next four games by himself,  eliminating the Nordiques and starting a fantastic run that would culminate with the Canadiens winning their 24th and, to this day, last Stanley Cup.

The end of the Nordiques


The O'Keefe brewery merged with Molson, abandoning ownership of the Nordiques in 1988, leaving the team in financial disarray. Marcel Aubut and a group of local investors managed to save it but after five losing seasons and the quick rise of salaries throughout the league, Nordiques fans started to wonder if their team could survive any longer. The 1994-95 lockout gave hope to the Quebec faithful but it was short lived. The NHL board of governors finally decided to accept a deal that excluded a salary cap. That decision forced Marcel Aubut and his partners to sell the team before starting losing money. The team was sold to a Colorado group that relocated the team to Denver for the 1995-96 season. The Nordiques were no more and the Colorado Avalanche was born. 

Montreal since Quebec has left


Since 1995, the Montreal Canadiens have become an irrelevant team in the NHL. After winning the Cup in 1993, the Habs didn't win another playoff series until 2002. They fell into mediocrity from 1995 to 2001 until José Théodore arrived and gave hope to the Montreal faithful but ended up being a flash in the pan. It took the arrival of Bob Gainey, a team legend, as general manager in order to bring back the once great franchise into playoff contention. Since the lock out in 2004-05, the Habs have made the playoffs in all but one season and have reached the conference finals for the first time in 2010 since 1993.

Since the Nordiques have left in 1995, the number of francophone players in Montreal has declined considerably. Only four francophones - Benoit Pouliot, Maxim Lapierre, Alexandre Picard and Mathieu Darche - are part of the 2010-2011 edition of the Montreal Canadiens.


Montreal's opposition to Quebec entering the NHL


The Montreal/Quebec rivalry started before the Nordiques even set foot in the NHL. The NHL and the WHA had been working on a merger since at least 1976. In order to merge with the WHA, the NHL board of governors needed to give its approval. Even if the majority voted "yes", some teams, including the Montreal Canadiens, could oppose the arrival of a team in their market. Montreal used that power and tried to block the Nordiques from entering the NHL. Facing pressure from its peers, Montreal's ownership finally decided to give Quebec their vote and the Nordiques entered the league in the 1979-80 season. 

The "Beer" War


The Battle of Quebec not only influenced the hockey business but also the brewery business. Not only Molson and O'Keefe owned the Canadiens and the Nordiques, respectively, but they were the two biggest breweries in the province of Quebec. Inevitably, both fan bases refused to drink the opposition's beer and that commercial war influenced greatly the product on the ice. In fact, since Montreal is a bigger market than Quebec City, O'Keefe couldn't compete against its rival Molson and was soon  forced to merge with the Montreal-based company. The merger forced O'Keefe  to sell their team and Molson could then benefit on both fronts. One could argue that the "Beer War" led to the departure of the Nordiques.

The Battle of Quebec: Families were divided


The Battle of Quebec provided a very interesting social aspect. Quebec has a large territory but a small population. Most Quebeckers have family all across the province and that generated a very special ambiance in the province. People from the same family wouldn't talk for weeks after one team had eliminated the other in the playoffs, co-workers would get into intense arguments and long-time friends would even get into fist fights.

The war wasn't only fought on the ice or in the stands but in every aspect of everyday life. At school, at work or at the grocery store, people would talk about the latest installment of the Battle of Quebec. Some people even wanted to associate the Nordiques with the separatist movement and the Habs with the federalists. Every aspect of Quebec society was touched by the rivalry and everybody took sides. Some artists even avoided showing their loyalty because they didn't want to lose one market or the other.

The rivalry today and Quebec's possible return the NHL


Even if the Nordiques left town 15 years ago, the rivalry between the two fan bases is still alive. Some fans have converted to the church of "La Sainte-Flanelle" and now support "Les Glorieux" but most of the hardcore Nordiques fans who continue to hate the Habs even though they don't have a new favorite team, they watch hockey only to cheer against their former rivals.

TVA, a popular French TV station, launched a reality-TV series based on the rivalry. Teams were assembled with people from Montreal and Quebec and competed in an 8 games series in order to determine which city had the best hockey players. Popular figures of the rivalry like long-time Quebec coach Michel Bergeron and feisty former Montreal captain Guy Carbonneau were involved.

As of 2010, "J'ai ma place", Quebecor Media and the City of Quebec - particularly dynamic mayor Régis Labeaume - are still working on bringing back a team to "La Vieille Capitale" and this time they have the support of the Montreal Canadiens and the Molson family. With failing franchises in Atlanta, Long Island, Miami, Nashville and Phoenix; Quebec City is closer than ever to have its team back and renew its famous rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens.



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