Je me souviens—I remember—reads the motto on license plates throughout the province of Quebec. But just what is it you remember, M. French-Canadian motorist? Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis? Maurice Richard? The Plains of Abraham? Margaret Trudeau? In fact, Je me souviens evinces the citizenry's acute awareness of the province's ancient grudges—political, religious and ethnic—and ongoing feuds.
To see such memories in the making, one need look no further than this year's Adams Division final in the Stanley Cup playoffs, which showcases a bitter rivalry between Les Canadiens of Montreal and Les Nordiques of Quebec City. Though only eight years old, this feud packs a virulence well beyond its years. It is a best-of-seven-game exercise in bad blood and occasionally good hockey between two teams that are facing each other in the playoffs for the fourth time in the last six seasons.
On Sunday night, after the Canadiens stunned the Nordiques 3-2 at 5:30 of sudden-death overtime in Quebec City, the Battle for Quebec stood at two games apiece, with each team having won twice on the other's ice. Montreal's winning goal Sunday was no work of art, no classic score borrowed from Richard or Beliveau or Lafleur, just a 55-foot Mats Naslund slap shot that somehow escaped Nordique goalie Mario (Goose) Gosselin. "He should have gotten that one," said Naslund, Montreal's favorite Swedish import. For Naslund, who had scored the first goal of the game, it was also a case of sweet revenge. Earlier in the game Naslund had had to leave the ice after Nordique Paul Gillis—with the benefit of a 40-foot skating start—smashed him face-first into the boards. Je me souviens.
When Montreal and Quebec get together, says Canadien coach Jean Perron, "It's not only a hockey game, it's a social matter. People in all parts of Quebec society are emotionally involved." That must account for the garbage that Montreal fans showered on their defending Stanley Cup champs as punishment for losing Games 1 and 2 at home to the hated Nordiques. It would explain the half-dozen fistfights in the stands two nights later, when the series moved to the Colisèe in Quebec City.
May 3, 1987
A decided mauvais volontè has long festered between Quebec's two major cities. Montreal is glittering and oh-so-hip, the cosmopolitan capital of Canada. According to its detractors—the most vociferous of whom live in Quebec City—Montreal is also the nation's crime center, an urban wasteland, Gomorrah-on-the-St. Lawrence. One hundred and sixty miles upriver, high above the St. Lawrence, sits North America's only walled city, Quebec. It's the seat of the provincial government, but Montrealers deride the Quebecois for having a mentalitè de cloche (a church-tower mentality), a narrow mind-set typified by the practice of passing gossip immediately after attending services. They snicker at how few options Quebec's nightlife presents.
The Canadiens and the Nordiques became bitter rivals the instant Quebec was absorbed into the NHL upon the demise of the WHA. From the word go, the two teams got along like tomcats tied at the tail. For five years the venerable Canadiens, bankrolled by Molson Breweries, had television rights to the entire province and saw to it that games of the Nordiques, sponsored by Molson rival Carling O'Keefe, could be shown only within a 50-mile radius of Quebec City. Some welcome wagon, eh?
On paper this year's series seemed to be totally one-sided in favor of the Canadiens. The Nordiques, in fact, had barely scraped past hapless Buffalo just to get into the playoffs and finish the regular season 21 points behind Adams Division leader Hartford and 20 behind second-place Montreal. In the opening playoff round, Quebec spotted Hartford two wins but then came roaring back to zap the Whalers in four straight games to set up Beer War IV.
After the Nordiques won the two opening games in the Forum, coach Michel Bergeron was asked if his team was peaking at just the right time. "Peaking?" he said. "No, it is simple: I have my team now."
Indeed, for major chunks of the regular season Peter Stastny, Dale Hunter and Gord Donnelly. Quebec's premier gun, checking center/superpest and goon, respectively, were sidelined with injuries. No reason to rush the skating wounded back into the lineup during the regular season, of course, when you only have to beat out Buffalo to gain the playoffs. So, while Bergeron played every Jean, Pierre and Anton he could find, opponents spent much of the season shutting down the only star left in the Nordiques lineup, left wing Michel Goulet, who was triple-covered far too often and as a result failed to score 50 goals for the first time in five years.
Clearly, the Nordiques saved their best hockey for the playoffs, which is the only smart thing to do in the NHL. Ask the Whalers, who wore themselves out playing hard for 80 games but won only an early vacation for their efforts.
Having watched the Nordiques repeatedly lure the Whalers into fights that ultimately disrupted Hartford's game plans, the disciplined Canadiens laughed and said, "Let them try that with us." Quebec did, and in Montreal the ploy worked beautifully. In Game 1 the Canadiens were hit with three double minor penalties—two courtesy of the pugnacious Chris Nilan—and the grateful Nordiques converted one of them into a power-play goal in their 7-5 win. Anton Stastny scored two goals and an assist as the Nordiques drove Canadien goaltender Patrick Roy, the hero of the '86 Cup triumph, to the bench, where he remained through Game 4.
Nordique heavyweight Basil McRae had scored only nine goals in his previous 39 games, but he got one in Game 1 against Montreal, and Hunter started calling him "Orr." When McRae popped a rebound past goalie Brian Hayward for the 2-1 game-winner in Game 2, Hunter took to calling him "Gretz."
In Quebec City on Friday night, the fans, most of whom were clad in white, greeted their triumphant Nordiques with an ovation that was deafening—for 14 seconds. That's how long it took Sergio Momesso to beat Gosselin. When the puck trickled into the Quebec zone off the opening face-off, Nordique defensemen Randy Moller and Steven Finn dutifully rode their men into the boards. Problem was, no one picked up the puck until Momesso skated in unmolested and lifted a lame backhander over Gosselin's shoulder. After that, Canadien tough guys Nilan and John Kordic took the law into their own fists, pummeling away at McRae. When it was all over, Montreal had an impressive 7-2 victory—and Perron came off as a genius. Perron had not dressed Momesso and center Kjell Dahlin for the Canadiens' losses in Montreal and had used defenseman Mike Lalor only in Game 2. But he dressed all three for Game 3, and they accounted for six points in the Canadiens' romp.
On Sunday night McRae showed that he had not forgotten his meal ticket into the NHL. Before the game even started, he and Momesso flailed away at each other, two heavyweights doing battle. So much for that NHL argument that fighting is not premeditated. McRae was adjudged the instigator, and the Canadiens started the game with a power play. Once again Montreal silenced the wildly partisan crowd with a shotgun start, this time Naslund scoring after only 18 seconds. "That was a cold shower for them," Perron said. Colder still, of course, was the little Swede's winner in sudden death.
All the fighting was rather predictable, of course. Beer War playoff games have always featured enough stickwork to fell a fat tree. Perhaps the most memorable—forgettable, really—display took place in 1984. At the end of the second period of Game 6, a fight between Hunter and Montreal's Guy Carbonneau touched off a bench-clearing brawl. Then, as both teams were on the ice warming up for the third period, the melee resumed. At the end, Hunter was grappling with his brother, Mark. Up in the stands their father looked on, pulling for whoever seemed to be getting the worst of it. Together the teams were assessed 252 minutes in penalties.
And so, having wrested the momentum from the cross-province upstarts, the Canadiens headed back to the Forum for Game 5. "The danger of defending the Cup," said Montreal captain Bob Gainey on his team's arrival in Quebec City, "is that you find yourself looking down the road to the next shift, the next period, the next series. If you go into [Game 3] thinking, We have to beat them four times, it would seem like such a mountain to climb, you might not even give it the effort."
On Sunday evening the Canadiens were halfway up Gainey's metaphorical mountain and focused on the next foothold, not the peak.
"It's not just a hockey game. People in all parts of Quebec society are emotionally involved."