Much like the Mets in New York and the White Sox in Chicago, the Quebec Nordiques were always the red-headed stepchild in their own home.
The mighty Yankees of the Bronx and the Teflon Cubs of the North Side, always seem to have the upper hand on their crosstown rivals. For the Nordiques, things were even worse. At least the Mets have won a couple of titles and for a good chunk of the 1980s, the Amazins were the talk of the Big Apple. The White Sox have just as many World Series championships as the Cubs even though Wrigley seems to attract more crowds. As for the Nordiques, the differences between them and the club they shared a province with, were much starker. The Nordiques of Quebec City never reached the Stanley Cup Finals in their history.
Meantime, the Montreal Canadiens have won the most Stanley Cups all-time. Despite that disparity, the Nordiques, like the Mets and White Sox, were a worthy thorn in their formidable foe’s side. A thorn that just wouldn’t go away. Until they literally had to go away.
The Quebec Nordiques skated from 1972-1979 in the WHA before entering the NHL. They would play on hockey’s biggest stage through the 1994-95 season. The Nords were loved by the fans at the Colisee de Quebec, where the franchise played all of their home games, and by countless fans throughout Quebec City. Then one day, they were gone.
Owner Marcel Aubut sold the Nordiques to COMSAT in 1995. The team was relocated to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche. Aubut blamed Canada’s exchange rate and Quebec City’s overwhelming French-speaking population. Fans didn’t buy it. Aubut needed a police escort to get out of Dodge.
The cruelest blow came the following season. Colorado won the Stanley Cup. The team now known as the Avalanche won it all. This could have been the Nordiques. The Baltimore Ravens turned a similar trick in the NFL in 2000, but they were already in Maryland for five seasons. The old Browns fans were smarting for sure, but almost all of the players from the 1995 Cleveland squad had moved on before Baltimore won the Lombardi Trophy. That was not the case for Quebec fans. The Avs were chock full or Nordiques. Big-time players like Peter Forsberg, Adam Deadmarsh, Valeri Kamensky, and even Captain Joe Sakic were in Quebec City one moment and Denver the next. Men who were wearing the Quebec powder blue just months prior were now celebrating a championship in burgundy. The Avalanche added a second Cup in 2001. Colorado’s Rocky Mountain high was the lowest of lows for Quebec City. It didn’t seem right. It still doesn’t, a quarter-century later. After all of Art Modell’s transgressions, at least the Browns are back in Cleveland. Quebec City has not been as fortunate.
So why are the Nordiques seemingly gone for good? Who’s keeping the NHL out of Quebec City? The team drew very well during their time in the NHL. Fans packed the arena nightly to back their beloved team. They didn’t sell out all the time, but they sold out a lot. They were close to capacity often. Been to a Florida Panthers game in recent years? How about the Arizona Coyotes? Plenty, and I mean plenty, of seats are available. Even some teams with rich history struggle to bring in spectators. The four-time Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders ranked second to last in NHL attendance this season. The Nordiques would usually fall in the middle of the pack when it came to attendance numbers, maintaining their fanbase year in and year out. Quebec would often outdraw NHL stalwarts, like the Boston Bruins. Surely, fans like that would have a shot at bringing a team back to town, right?
Wrong. At least so far that’s been the resounding answer. Since the Nordiques left for Colorado, the Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes, the Hartford Whalers changed to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Nashville Predators came on board, as did the Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Minnesota Wild. Then the Thrashers left Georgia for Winnipeg to become the new Jets, the Golden Knights landed in Las Vegas, and in 2018, Seattle was granted a franchise that is expected to start play in the 2021-22 season. That’s a lot of shuffling without any consideration for the great people and fans of Quebec City.
If NHL commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t want to grant Quebec an outright expansion club, perhaps there are other ways to get the Nordiques back where they belong. The Ottawa Senators have the worst attendance in all of hockey. The Sens actually look up at the Isles, Panthers, and Coyotes. The team would surely draw better in Quebec. The current pandemic isn’t helping many franchises. When the NHL finally returns, some organizations that are already doing poorly may even do worse. Tough economic times could lead to another team or two looking for a new home. Quebec has one ready. It’s a state of the art place, too.
in 2015, the Videotron Centre opened its doors. The huge venue that cost $370 million in public funding was built with the idea of wooing NHL action back to “la capitale nationale”. Instead the 18,259 seat rink is home to the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL and has served as host to some concerts and other shows. The largest public investment in city history could not get Bettman and friends moving.
The exchange rate is a real thing. Bettman has touched on this publicly, and he is not wrong. That said, a team with passionate fans like the Nordiques would surely be able to overcome that gap at the gate. Bettman wants to go to places the NHL hasn’t been before, thus Vegas. But, the Nordiques are special. Quebec is special. This would hardly be any grand experiment. We know what we would get and it would be great.
Bettman isn’t the only nemesis to Nords fans. Many believe their old on-ice foes may be playing a role in keeping them from returning to the ice as well. The Canadiens-Nordiques ferocious rivalry would instantly pick up again. That would be good for the Habs and the entire league. Surely, Montreal isn’t afraid of the Nords, right? Well, maybe not the team itself, but what about the owner?
Geoff Molson and his family probably aren’t too keen on sharing any fans with the Nordiques or anyone else for that matter. The Molson hate for the Nordiques goes way back and it’s not just about hockey. When the rivalry between the two clubs was at a fever pitch, the Canadiens and Nordiques were both owned by breweries. Molson for the Habs and O’Keefe for the Nords. Liquor stores would either hang the Molson calendar or the O’Keefe calendar, certainly not both. You were on one side or the other. Ultimately, just like on the ice, the Canadiens won out in the suds game, too. O’Keefe was sold in 1987 before merging with Molson in 1989.
The Nordiques never did back down from the big, bad, beer-bolstered Habs though. In 1984, the second-round playoff game now known as the ‘Good Friday Massacre’ took place. The contest was riddled with several brawls and plenty of blood. Montreal won the game 5-3 to clinch the series 4-2 and send Quebec home, but it was the wild fighting that made this a notable night in hockey history. Eleven players were ejected and 252 penalty minutes were doled out. Imagine that today? A real, bitter hockey rivalry. Not one between pundits, fantasy fans, or Twitter tough guys, but one between real men, fighting for their team, each other, and a major part of Canada. Who wouldn’t want at least a taste of that again?
The Battle of Quebec mostly went the Canadiens way. Montreal posted a 62-39-12 mark against Quebec. They met in the playoffs five times. The Habs took three of those series including the infamous clash in 1984. The 24-time Stanley Cup champion Canadiens came out on top more times than not, but it was never easy against those feisty Nords.
“The games between the Nordiques and Habs were once the biggest rivalry,” Richard Zemlak told Breitbart Sports. The former Nordique tough guy is positive that Quebec City yearns for another shot at Montreal. “Fans would love to rekindle their emotions to see the two teams lace them up again,” Zemlak said.
Zemlak has only fond memories of his playing days in Quebec. “The adrenaline and excitement and being fully alert for each game is what I remember most,” he said. “The intensity and emotions from start to finish were unbelievable.”
Quebec City is that kind of hockey hotbed. Nordiques fans created an electric atmosphere and players thrived off of it. “Wearing the jersey with that emblem was all about pride to represent the people of Quebec City,” said Zemlak. “We wanted to give them something to cheer about.” Cheer they did. They would love to cheer again.
The Quebec Nordiques haven’t played a hockey game since losing to the New York Rangers in the playoffs on May 16, 1995 at Madison Square Garden. That’s a long time ago. Yet, Nordiques fans are still passionate about their team. In some ways, more than ever. Web sites and social media pages calling on the NHL to bring back the Nordiques, are all over the Internet. Fans outside of Quebec City and even fans outside of Canada are joining the battle. Many American fans want the Nordiques back. Hockey fans want the Nordiques back. Most of all, Quebec City wants their Nordiques back. After all, it’s where they belong. The facility is ready. The fans have been ready. If only the powers that be had half the guts as those old, tough as nails Quebec teams had. Those teams that are remembered so fondly by so many.
Though fleeting, there is still a glimmer of hope that there may be something more than just memories, somewhere down the road, for the ever so loyal Quebec City faithful. The fans whose battle cry has changed over the years from ‘Go Nordiques Go’ to ‘Come Back Nordiques, Please Come Back’ certainly deserve better than this.
Follow Kevin Scholla on Twitter @kevinscholla