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Someday the young, talented Quebec Nordiques—everybody's pick as the Stanley Cup team of the future—will thank the archrival Montreal Canadiens for the character lesson they were handed last week by the Stanley Cup team of the past. Someday. Maybe. If they don't end up choking on the memory of it.
The Nordiques waltzed into the hallowed Montreal Forum last Thursday with a two-games-to-zip lead and with Les Habitants on the run in the NHL's most eagerly anticipated opening-round playoff series. But after surveying the 22 Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters, the Nordiques were outchecked, outhustled and outshot by their supposedly less-skilled opponents. That they were out-scored only 2-1, in overtime, in Game 3 and 3-2 in Game 4 was largely due to the grace and guts of goaltender Ron Hextall, whose spirited play was wasted. Quebec coach Pierre Pag�, furious at the lack of intensity shown by his team, accused some of the Nordiques of "surfing" around center ice. Surfing! Age-old puckster maxim: Teams, even young and talented teams with pretty fleurs-de-lis on their uniforms, do not win playoff games by surfing.
"They're playing like it's the 10th game of the year," Pag� railed. "They have a choice: They can listen to experienced people who have been through it before, or they can live it themselves. But if they don't want to lose, they have to give a lot more than that."
The carnage continued in Game 5 on Monday night with a 5-4 Nordique loss in Quebec that sent the teams back to the Forum for Game 6 with Quebec one game from elimination. "This team's unbelievable, talentwise," says Nordique forward Scott Young, whose four playoff goals were tops on the team through the first five games of the series. "But you can't just rely on talent to win. There's no excuse for not sucking it up."
The Nordiques, it should be remembered, are the youngest team in the league, with an average age of 23.5. They've already come a long way this season, doubling their regular-season point total in one year from 52 to 104, the largest increase in NHL history. This is Quebec's first appearance in postseason play since 1987, and most of its players have never participated in the NHL playoffs before. Heck, on a roster that includes four Russians, a Swede and a Czech, an appreciable number have never seen the NHL playoffs before.
Still, that Pag� should feel compelled to plead for increased effort speaks volumes about the changed nature of this once storied rivalry that in the 1980s was as fierce as any in sports. Something was missing last week in this so-called Battle of Quebec that can be summed up in a single word—enmity.
Oh, how these two teams used to hate each other! The Canadiens and the Nordiques met four times in the playoffs between '82 and '87, with each side winning twice. Some called it hockey, but it was closer to full-scale war, spilling over onto the streets and into the taverns across the province. No Quebecois was able to stand on the sidelines in bemused detachment. Everyone became a fanatic.
Sportswriters from Quebec and Montreal stopped speaking to one another. Carling O'Keefe, which owned the Nordiques, and Molson, which owned the Canadiens, declared beer war on each other and saw their sales affected by the outcome of the series. French separatists embraced the Nordiques; Anglophiles cheered for the Habs. "Those series were highly politicized, blown way out of proportion," says Steve Shutt, who played for the Canadiens from 1972 to '84 and now does radio and TV commentary for the team. "And they were the most brutal, dirty games I've ever played in. It was scary. They took so much out of you physically and emotionally that if you won, it didn't matter if you went any further in the playoffs. The fans cared more about that series than if we won the Cup."
"We had 13 French Canadians, they had 13 French Canadians," says former Nordique coach Michel Bergeron. "And tough players. We had Dale Hunter; they had Chris Nilan. These guys would always make something happen if they were behind by a couple of goals."
Hockey fans understand what those code words mean, particularly when linked to the likes of Hunter and Nilan: blood on the ice, preferably someone else's. "Now the breweries, Molson and O'Keefe, have merged," laments Bergeron, a radio talk-show host in Montreal. "Most of the people in the province, even Montreal fans, they're happy for Quebec because it's been so long since they've been in the playoffs. Both teams want to play a real clean series. I don't think the rivalry will ever be the same as it was."