Quebec is a city that seems to specialize in the unexpected. On the radio a Charles Aznavour-style singer imitates the Big Bopper doing the '50s hit Chantilly Lace. His rendition is complete with U.S. snorts and groans, but he sings it in a French most Parisians could not understand. Out in the suburbs U.S.-style shopping centers are selling English shoes and French soap, and in the Old City, with its fort and other remnants of the 18th century, teens roam in the latest rive gauche fashions. But the most surprising thing of all last week in Quebec happened at the Colisee, best known as the home of the WHA's Nordiques. There, two games of the National Lacrosse League's best-of-seven Nations Trophy finals were played. That the local Caribous were involved in the NLL's championship series was absolutely unexpected. And they not only were fighting the Montreal Quebecois for the title, but, even more surprisingly, they were getting the better of the battle, at least for the moment.
Pro lacrosse is so rough that the Dirty Dozen would have been a more likely candidate for the finals than the Caribous. Quebec had spent more than half of the NLL season being pushed around by the league's five other teams. As late as Aug. 25 the Caribous were in last place; then a dramatic drive (they won six of their last eight games) qualified them for the fourth and final spot in the playoffs. That achievement was followed by a startling victory in the first round over the defending champion Long Island Tomahawks. Quebec knocked off the Tomahawks in six games, rather easily taking its four victories by scores of 10-8, 14-9, 15-11 and 18-12.
Meanwhile, Montreal, one of the NLL's front-runners throughout the season, was defeating the Boston Bolts in the other first-round pairing to make the finals an intra-province affair. But in the tightly balanced NLL, not even classy Montreal could ease into the title round. It had to rally from a 3-1 deficit against the Bolts to make it.
Despite all these theatrical preliminaries, the thing that surprised the equipe de crosse fans in the Quebec bistros was the status of the Nations Trophy series when it arrived in their city. Brilliant play by Travis Cook, who scored eight points in the opening two games in Montreal, and Goalie Larry Smeltzer, who made 81 saves, and Coach Medo Martinello's modified zone defense had thrust Quebec into another unexpected position—a 2-0 lead.
For the members of the SRO crowd of 10,781 that gathered at the Colisee for the third game, any lead, any time over Montreal is worth savoring. The two cities have been rivals for generations; the sophisticated, Continental aura of Montreal and the chain-saw, Lucky Pierre image of Quebec go together like '52 Lafite Rothschild and a Big Mac.
And the two teams reflect their cities' images: Montreal is a well-drilled, fast-breaking club, light on violence and strong on controlled power plays. The Caribous are rough, individual and ever ready to drop their gloves. Even Quebec's rink fits its team. The Colisee is battered and dim, the walls scarred by objects thrown by emotional fans.
An hour before the opening face-off of Game 3, a Montreal reporter appeared with a bandaged forehead that was wounded while he was trying to enter the arena through enemy lines. By the time the game was over, he would not be the only visitor who felt worse for wear. Despite a three-goal performance by Montreal's star Forward John Davis, the Caribous won 10-8. And again it was Smeltzer, with 34 saves, and Cook, with four goals and a pair of assists, who led the way.
After that victory, the cry in Quebec was "Imbattables, ces Caribous!" Rather than its usual state of simple surprise, the city now was in shock. How could August's last-place team be 60 minutes from the Nations Trophy and four straight victories over Montreal?
Among the reasons were midsummer trades that brought Defenseman Rick Bisson, Forward Brian Wilson, Forward Gord Osinchuk and Defenseman Jim Gow to the Caribous. Another was a visit one evening in August to the Caribou cellar locker room by Owner Roger Barre, a Quebec auto dealer. Says Boston Coach Jim Logan, "No one knows what Roger said in there, but I'll bet it had more to do with getting paid than it did with winning one for the Gipper."
At practice on the day of Game 4, the Caribous confidently goofed off. "Hey, there's a party tonight and you're invited," yelled Bisson to a league official. "Four days of lacrosse, five days of beer!" Coach Martinello was less quick to quaff. "I feel sick," he said, rubbing his stomach.