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Change for the Better
Leigh Montville
March 22, 1993
Suddenly the Quebec Nordiques are a match for mighty Montreal
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March 22, 1993

Change For The Better

Suddenly the Quebec Nordiques are a match for mighty Montreal

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The goalie who arrived was six-year veteran Ron Hextall, who was unable to play in the Montreal game on Saturday because of injury but who has been steady for most of the season. A leader. Another leader who came in the deal was center Mike Ricci, who can also score. Defense-men Steve Duchesne and Kerry Huffman have provided power-play help. Winger Chris Simon, 21, is the future help that Pag� sought. Also in the package were the rights to 19-year-old center Peter Forsberg, a spectacular player in Sweden, available for next year when his contract with the MoDo Elite team expires. Also included were the Flyers' first-round draft choices for the next two years. Also, $15 million.

"You know how the fans in Quebec have yelled at Lindros every time he has gone there to play?" a Quebec sportswriter says. "Now there is a move to have an Eric Lindros Appreciation Day when he comes to Quebec for the final time this season. To cheer for him for what he did for the Nordiques. Put up signs saying MERCI, ERIC, things like that."

On Saturday night in Montreal you wanted to be a part of all that. Merci, Eric. There has been so much about this franchise that has been negative. The Lindros business. The losing. The constant specter of Montreal. The Canadiens are a team wrapped in the grandest winning tradition in sport, massaged and scrutinized by the local press as no other team in North America is, treated by the French-speaking inhabitants of the province of Quebec almost as the mother church of a state religion. How can anybody compete with that? The Nordiques are going to be the country mice to the city mice, the poor relations, the Quebec City wannabes until they win something of their own. Even then it might not matter.

"Coaching the Montreal Canadiens is like managing the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Dodgers," Montreal coach Jacques Demers said last week, returning to the bench after missing two games because of chest pains that were caused by stress. "I was in the hospital and I felt like the pope. Everybody called. Politicians. Entertainment people. Fans."

But now you wanted to tell everyone that the Canadiens aren't much different from the Nordiques. Maurice Richard doesn't play anymore. Or Jean Beliveau. Or Guy Lafleur. Montreal is another young team that has surprised people this year. True, the Canadiens had a solid regular season a year ago, but after they were bounced from the playoffs in four straight games by the Boston Bruins in the Adams Division finals, Montreal general manager Serge Savard promised extensive changes. The changes were made. He went mostly for scoring help, picking up forwards Brian Bellows, Vincent Damphousse and Gary Leeman. The change to Demers from last year's coach, Pat Burns, who had resigned in May, also has been a change to offense.

"A year ago we had an awful time coming from behind," says Kirk Muller, the Canadiens' second-leading scorer. "We'd be all right if we jumped out fast, but when we fell behind, we had all kinds of trouble. This year I think we're still following the defensive discipline of Pat Burns, but we've also opened up under Jacques Demers. Especially the defensemen. We can put on some pressure."

Isn't that the way the Nordiques play? Aren't they another offensive show? Wasn't that the way they played Saturday night? Wasn't that the way they beat the Canadiens? If Quebec could take the third period of that game and play the same way for the rest of the year, what would the rest of the year be like? Four goals. None against. Flying.

The most encouraging performance in the game belonged to the Nordiques' Valeri Kamensky, a 26-year-old winger from Russia. What about this guy? For two years he has been mostly a rumor. He joined the team last year, billed as the Wayne Gretzky of Europe, and almost immediately broke his left leg. He came back this year and broke the ankle on his other leg. Back for about a month, he scored two goals against the Canadiens on Saturday. Both came on breakaways. Both followed moves in which he waited, waited, waited some more until Montreal goalie Patrick Roy finally reacted. Then Kamensky finally shot. Both goals were spectacular.

"He's as new to me as he is to everyone else," Pag� says. "But he's the guy who can be our Michael Jordan, our Elvis Presley. Our showstopper."

A showstopper who first appears in the final quarter of the season? A win over the Canadiens in Montreal in a big game? You look at the Nordiques and they remind you of the pulsating blotch of color on the TV weather map that indicated the Blizzard of '93, when the man with the pointer showed the storm's possible path of destruction. Who wants to play Quebec now? Pag� says that youth can beat experience and that the Dallas Cowboys proved that in the Super Bowl. He has more youth on his side than anyone else.

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