It all started back in October, when the Quebec Nordiques, who once stood by as their goaltender skated angrily off the ice and quit in the middle of a game, opened the NHL season by whipping Hartford and Boston. It continued when the Nordiques, whose first coach, Rocket Richard, walked out after two games in 1972 because he said he "didn't want to die behind the bench," beat and tied the detested Montreal Canadiens in November. It kept up when the Nordiques, whose roster includes 14 French-speaking Canadians, three English-speaking Canadians, four Czechoslovakians and a U.S. citizen, played nine games in 16 nights (Nov. 14-29) and lost only once. And last week the excitement peaked when the Nordiques, who ignore Coach Michel Bergeron's requests to address one another in English even though it is supposed to be the official team language, defeated league-leading Edmonton 9-8. Despite going on to lose 5-3 to Boston on Saturday night, at week's end Quebec, along with the Bruins, had the third-best record in the NHL.
The Nordiques' accomplishment has come with a sort of shoot-first-ask-questions-later Wild West style. In 30 games they have scored a whopping 137 goals, but they have given up a nearly-as-whopping 127. Purists may find this an unconventional way to go about winning, but it's just fine with the Quebec management. It's no secret that Bergeron, backed by Nordique President Marcel Aubut and General Manager Maurice Filion, aims to build a team that ultimately will steal the thunder in the province of Quebec from the Canadiens, and what more rousing way to do that than to score big and win.
Certainly it's a more successful approach than any the Nordiques essayed in the past. Oh, they did win the WHA championship in 1976-77, but that didn't fool the hockey-smart Quebecois, who well understood the difference between the Avco Trophy and the Stanley Cup. Two seasons ago the Nordiques joined the NHL and finished 19th in the 21-team league. Last year they ended up 11th. Trouble was, Quebec had WHA talent playing an NHL schedule. "At first we thought we were strong enough to compete," says Filion. "But 'at first' lasted about three games."
During the Nordiques' first two NHL seasons, Filion revamped his roster; now only five of the 22 players who were regulars in Quebec's last WHA season are still with the club. The two best are Marc Tardif and Real Cloutier, both of whom had twice won the WHA scoring title. Filion also has chosen well in recent drafts, landing forwards Dale Hunter and Michel Goulet, Quebec's sixth- and seventh-best scorers, respectively, through Sunday, and up-and-coming Defenseman Normand Roche-fort. In February of 1980 Filion signed Left Wing Jacques Richard (no kin to Rocket), who was floundering in the minors and on his way out of hockey. Last season Richard had 52 goals and 51 assists. And in January 1981, Filion took a step toward shoring up the Nordiques' defense, which was even more miserable then than it is now, by trading for Goaltender Daniel Bouchard. After Bouchard arrived in Quebec from Calgary, the Nordiques lost only five of the 29 games in which he played last season. "We could have changed step-by-step," says Aubut, "but the people in Quebec are—how you say?—impatient."
The most significant change was bringing in the Europeans. Last season the Nordiques added Peter, now 25, and Anton, 22, Stastny, the gifted brothers who had excelled as members of the Czechoslovakian national team. Aubut was instrumental in their defection. Last summer Quebec landed two more defectors, Marian Stastny, 28, Peter and Anton's older brother, and Miroslav Frycer, 22, also from Czechoslovakia. Both are superb right wings. Frycer (sounds like FREE-chair) had 33 goals in 33 games for his Vitkovice team in the Czech League last season.
The influx of Europeans has only exacerbated what was already a bit of a language problem for the Nordiques, whose dressing-room door has a sign that reads DRESSING ROOM, VESTIAIRE (French) and SATNA (Slovak). Two Nordiques, Rochefort and Dave Pichette, speak French but precious little English and maybe two words of Slovak. Hunter and Dale Hoganson speak English but no French, as does Robbie Ftorek, the team captain, who is Czechoslovakian by descent but grew up in Massachusetts. Frycer is lost in both English and French. All three Stastnys get by in English, but only Anton knows enough French to wander into downtown Quebec City. "Sometimes I walk into the locker room and it sounds like the League of Nations," says Bergeron, throwing up his hands. In a serious moment he says, "I can't imagine this team without the Stastnys."
Last season Peter broke the NHL scoring record for rookies with 39 goals and 70 assists for 109 points. At week's end he was again leading Quebec in scoring, with 17 goals and 30 assists. Anton has 11 goals and 22 assists and, with Peter and Marian, is a regular on the Nordique "power play that scores on 31.2% of its chances, second best in the league.
Frycer has had two hat tricks and, unlike most players who have learned hockey behind the Iron Curtain, knows how to excite a crowd. Upon scoring his first NHL goal, Mirko, as he is called, darted to center ice, kissed his stick and skated a few pirouettes while waving at the crowd. On the bench, a stunned Bergeron turned to Peter Stastny and asked, "What's with your friend?"
"I think he's happy," Peter replied.
But Quebec's most important addition this year has been Marian Stastny, who through Sunday was the team's No. 2 scorer with 18 goals and 22 assists. That's some accomplishment for a man who last year was without a hockey team. When Peter and Anton left Czechoslovakia, Marian was suspended both from his hometown club team in Bratislava and the Czech national squad. Despite having a law degree, Marian was unable to find work of any sort. The Stastnys' father lost his job and apartment.
A recipient of the Zasluzily Majser Spotru, Czechoslovakia's highest award in sports, Marian had never seriously considered leaving his homeland and says that he was at first stunned when his brothers defected. But what happened afterward convinced him that he had to leave, too. "It was dark, very dark," he says. "What choice did I have?"
Marian first tried to exit through legal channels but, not surprisingly, got nowhere. The Czech secret police watched him carefully, but Marian is clever. Publicly, he denounced his brothers for leaving. He bought building materials and began making major improvements to his home. The ploy may have thrown off the police, who figured that anyone working that hard on his house wasn't about to abandon it.
Marian met no resistance last May when he applied for passports for himself, his wife, Eva, and their three children to take a motor trip to other Communist countries. The Stastnys drove across Czechoslovakia and Hungary to Yugoslavia. There Marian obtained visas to enter Austria. On June 4, he and his family crossed the border near Graz. The next day they walked into the Canadian embassy in Vienna. Aubut says Marian took "unbelievable risks, crazy ones." He also admits that the Nordiques greased a few Czech palms as Marian made his way from Bratislava to Quebec City. "It was costly," Aubut says. "Very expensive."
Today Marian is living happily in the Quebec City suburb of St. Nicolas. Next week he plans to open a disco-restaurant in Quebec City called Le Dix-huit, which is French for eighteen, his Nordique number. It will feature rock music and Slovak entrèes. Asked about Bratislava, Marian says, "I try to forget."
At 5'10", 192 pounds, Marian's style of play is clearly un-Canadian. Unlike wings brought up in his adopted land, who tend to skate in predetermined lanes, he constantly free-lances, shooting and setting up plays from practically anywhere on the ice. Marian extended his scoring streak to 19 games against Edmonton before spraining an ankle, which kept him out of the Bruin game. And while many NHL players get most of their goals at home, he has scored 11 on the road. Best of all, his freewheeling style is exactly what Bergeron expects from all the Nordiques.
"Once we were laughed at, but not anymore," says Aubut, speaking of the province's love for the Canadiens and its indifference toward the Nordiques. Montreal has had 64 seasons to develop its worshipers, but this year Quebec has found a following, too. In fact, when the Nordiques and Canadiens played a 1-1 tie last month, the crowd of 17,088 did most of their cheering for the Nordiques. And the game was in Montreal. "Our goal isn't to become the next Montreal," Aubut says. "We want to be the premier organization in professional sports."
To that end, Aubut leaves no stone unturned. Quebec City is overwhelmingly French-speaking. It has only one English-speaking movie theater and no daily paper printed in English. As a result, a lot of English-speaking NHL players want no part of being a Nordique. To overcome that, Aubut sees that Quebec players and their families receive more than a few perks, including free French tutors and membership in the Club Entrain, which has fitness facilities, restaurants and a day-care center. The Nordique locker-room complex—complete with a sauna, three exercise bicycles, two Nautilus machines and a TV lounge with a stereo and Ping-Pong and pool tables—is probably the finest in the league. In addition, the club has supplied each of the four Czechoslovakian defectors with a car during his first year. "We must do more than any other team," Aubut says.
Bergeron, among others, marvels at Aubut. "With Marcel," he says, "it's always—how you say?—go, go, go."
For their part, the Nordiques are go, go, going. Their locker room may be a Babelian din, but communicating on the ice hasn't been a problem. As Bergeron says, "Out there, the puck is black for everyone."