William Notman and Son
There was an internet in 1995, but you wouldn’t really recognize it. It was an internet tethered to mainframe terminals; the internet of the Yellow Pages (only half as useful as the actual Yellow Pages). If someone asked if you had heard about the hockey game last night, unless you had watched it on TV, seen the highlights, listened to the radio or read the paper, you hadn’t. So for many on December 3, 1995, the morning after Patrick Roy—humiliated by being left in net for nine goals—declared on camera to Montreal Canadiens President Ronald Corey that he’d played his final game as a Hab, the news spread throughout Montreal the old-fashioned way. It was different four days later when he was actually traded, however, because by then everyone was on a deathwatch, waiting for the news. This was “Saint Patrick” after all, the only true Canadiens superstar for a generation. Up in Quebec City, schadenfreude was all that many orphaned Nordiques fans had left, and some undoubtedly watched the proceedings with a degree of mirth. (Until the trade was actually announced, that is, and they heard the destination.)
One of the quirks of bilingualism in Canada (and in hockey) is that you can use the same phrase and be talking about two different things. “The Trade” sent Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings and abridged a dynasty in Edmonton. “Le Trade” sent Patrick Roy to the Colorado Avalanche—formerly the Quebec Nordiques—and put the final nail in the coffin of a beautiful rivalry.
While the Canadiens were ruling hockey from the Montreal Forum for much of the 1970s, a young Patrick Roy was taking his first steps as a goaltender closer to their future rivals in Quebec. In his first year of competitive hockey, Roy stopped four of six shots in an exhibition shootout during the intermission of a Nordiques game at Quebec’s own fabled building, the Colisée. Despite his hometown pedigree, the Nordiques later passed on Roy twice in the 1984 draft—but, to be fair, so did everyone else. Even the Canadiens passed on him three times, taking Stephane Richer, Shayne Corson, and the assumed coup at the time, Czech defector Petr Svoboda, ahead of Roy. His Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team, the Granby Bisons, had been unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs at the hands of number one pick Mario Lemieux’s Laval Voisins; when the Canadiens finally did select Roy, no one knew they were drafting a player who’d soon become the youngest Conn Smythe winner (for MVP of the playoffs) in NHL history.
By the time of “Le Trade,” however, Roy had been a thorn in the side of the Nordiques for a decade. In the preseason of his rookie year, he nearly shut them out at the Colisée, then beat them at the Montreal Forum to solidify his spot on the Canadiens roster. He had defeated them in a seven-game playoff series in 1987, after Quebec won the first two games in Montreal; and again in a six-game, overtime-filled series en route to the Canadiens’ 1993 Stanley Cup win (again after the Nordiques had won the first two games, this time at home). Before Roy, Quebec had had the edge in the playoff rivalry: despite losing to Montreal in 1984—a series marred by the infamous “Good Friday Massacre” brawl—Quebec had bested them memorably in both 1982 and 1985. In fact, it was their early elimination in 1985 that allowed the Canadiens’ brain trust to scout Roy as he played for their minor league club’s championship run before deciding to bring him up for 1985–86. But Roy wasn’t always a Nordique killer: one of the few low points in his rookie season was on March 17, 1986, when he was pulled from a high-scoring loss to the Nordiques in which Michel Goulet scored four goals. (Though it was played on St. Patrick’s Day, Roy himself hadn’t been canonized quite yet.)
Even south of the border, networks made hay with the rivalry: ESPN referred to it as the “Civil War on Ice.” It was understood like intrastate college football rivalries. But though to the outside it looked like Freud’s “narcissism of small differences,” inside it was something more. Something distinct.
In 1972, the same year that Canada was celebrating supremacy as a hockey nation after its nail-biting victory over the Soviets in the Summit Series, the Quebec Nordiques debuted in the World Hockey Association. They were more than just an upstart team in an upstart league. As Terry Gitersos writes in his monograph Hockey and the Politics of Québécois Nationalism, 1979–1984: “The Nordiques became a vehicle for the hopes of activist sport journalists, a tabula rasa that came to symbolize what could be and what the Canadiens had ceased being: a Francophone owned, Francophone operated, French speaking hockey club that was intimately connected to its social and political milieu.”
This identity became even more meaningful when the WHA merged with the NHL at the end of the decade and the Nordiques joined a league that was beloved in Quebec—but also long-perceived to reflect Anglo oppression. Following a celebrated home opener in Quebec City, the Nordiques’ second NHL game was, fittingly, against the Canadiens. According to D’Arcy Jenish’s The NHL: A Centennial History, La Presse commemorated the occasion by angling for a Nordique victory: “The National Hockey League returned to the ancient capital after an absence of sixty years, but for fans of the Nordiques a victory over the glorious Canadiens of Montreal would constitute a truly historic event.” That same sixty-year absence came up again when, leading up to the 1980 Quebec Referendum, the Nordiques abolished English public address announcements from the Colisée: NHL commissioner John Ziegler responded that English had been the official language of the league for sixty years, reinforcing the conflict.
Perhaps more interesting was the way the French media used English against the Canadiens themselves. Gitersos documents how in 1981, some of the French media began referring to the Canadiens as “Les Maroons.” The Maroons, an English hockey club in Montreal during the 1920s and thirties, are best remembered for their rivalry with the Canadiens, a pair of Stanley Cups, and a few hall of famers including goalie Clint Benedict (whose longstanding playoff shutout record would stand for seventy-five years until it was broken by Roy). By figuring the Canadiens as Les Maroons, French-language media had swiftly and clearly re-positioned them as the English rivals to francophone Nordiques. Roy’s ascension as a superstar helped reverse that identity for Montreal, and according to his biography (penned by father Michel Roy) fourteen of the twenty-eight Canadiens in the 1993 Stanley Cup finals were francophone Quebecers.
Meanwhile, the rivalry on the ice seemed to be gearing up again as the Nordiques rejuvenated themselves with the proceeds from the Eric Lindros trade (interestingly, most of their young stars such as Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote weren’t Quebecers), and the pendulum was poised to swing back—just in time for Quebec’s second referendum. One wonders if a contending Nordiques club might have affected the outcome, but it wasn’t to be: after the lockout-shortened 1994–95 season, owner Marcel Aubut sold the club to Denver interests, and General Manager Pierre Lacroix (who as an agent had signed Patrick Roy in 1984) found himself in the Western Conference and south of the border—a world away—and suddenly able to make a trade that would have been anathema before.
When Roy played his first few games for the Colorado Avalanche twenty years ago, it was unsettling for fans across Quebec (except for those Nordiques fans whose allegiance had followed the team) and throughout Canada. But rarely has a traded legend settled in so well: soon Roy would become famous twice over in another jersey, especially for his battles with the Detroit Red Wings and his legendary fight at centre ice against goalie Mike Vernon—the same Vernon who was in the opposing goal the night Roy played his final game in Montreal, and with whom Roy had traded championships in 1986 and 1989 (when Vernon played for Calgary). But these are the stories of other rivalries. At the time of Roy’s final home game at the Montreal Forum, the Avalanche had already made their one trip to Montreal for the season. Saint Patrick would never play at the Bell Centre (né Molson Centre) as a Hab, and when he finally returned as a rival player in March of 1997, he’d not only beaten the Canadiens twice in Denver in the meantime, he’d also won his third Stanley Cup. The fans in Montreal could only wish he was still theirs, and the fans in Quebec could only wish his team was.