A season from dream to nightmare | NHL – Ice Hockey


Monday will coincide with the 25th anniversary, to the day, of the move of the Quebec Nordiques. A look back at a shock announcement made on May 25, 1995 in La Belle Province, at a time when the Nordics were close to the summits.

At the start of the 1994 school year, the Quebec Nordiques began their sixteenth season in the NHL, without knowing that it was their last. A season starting… with a lockout. The pay dispute between players and franchise owners will paralyze the league for 103 days. Hostilities will not begin until January 1995 and the teams will only play 48 regular season games, instead of 84 initially. A shortened format that will smile on the team with the fleur-de-lys and dressed in powder blue.

Map of ForsbergA flamboyant season

It’s the season of a new beginning, new hopes in the Belle Province. The whole organization changes its face, both on the ice and behind the scenes. Pierre Lacroix succeeds Pierre Pagé as General Manager, he appoints a young coach to guide the team, Marc Crawford, then 33 years old at the time. The announcement of the transfer of Mats Sundin, the first choice in the NHL Draft in 1989, did not go unnoticed. But in exchange, the Nordiques recover experience with Wendel Clark and Sylvain Lefebvre to supervise a young troop, including two nuggets: the Swede Peter Forsberg and the American Adam Deadmarsh.

Quebec is ready to begin a new cycle, and the latest maneuvers have helped shape a formation that leaves you dreaming. Lefebvre, Uwe Krupp, Adam Foote, Craig Wolanin, Curtis Leschyshyn, Steven Finn in defense, a solid duo of goalkeepers with Stéphane Fiset and Jocelyn Thibault, and explosive offensive potential thanks to Forsberg, Deadmarsh, Clark, Owen Nolan, Scott Young, Mike Ricci, Valeri Kamensky, Andrei Kovalenko, plus the one and only captain Joe Sakic. On paper, the Nordiques had perhaps the best team in their history.

An impression that will be confirmed on the ice as Marc Crawford’s men will have a string of victories. He claimed on a daily basis The sun that a real enthusiasm animated the team: I remember one night in Buffalo, it must have been our third or fourth game of the season, when we had just outclassed the Sabers (7-3). Scott Young, a calm guy, had come up to me as we were leaving the old auditorium to say, “My God, we’re good. That pretty much summed up what everyone believed. »

Map of Saki

The Nordiques are irresistible, and intractable at home, conceding only one defeat in their Coliseum. The Fleurdelisés will finish at the top of the Eastern Conference, five points ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers of Eric Lindros… drafted by Quebec in 1991 but who had refused to wear the uniform of the French-speaking team. The Nordiques will score 185 goals, the most prolific offense in the league with five more goals than Jaromír Jágr’s Pittsburgh Penguins. Joe Sakic will register 62 points, the fourth best total in the NHL, and Peter Forsberg 50 points, which will earn him the Calder Trophy for top rookie.

The season in Quebec is fabulous. But it will end abruptly in the first round of the playoffs, against the defending champions, the New York Rangers. Perhaps too much confidence accumulated after the regular season, probably a lack of experience, the Fleurdelisés will bend against the Blueshirts. The turning point of the series takes place in game 4, Quebec leads 2-0, Joe Sakic scores a third goal, wrongly disallowed, the Rangers will restart and win the game 3-2 in overtime. The powdered Blues will not recover. New York, qualified by a small point for the playoffs, won the last match at Madison Square Garden, a series concluded 4 wins to 2.

Defender Sylvain Lefebvre defined the atmosphere thus in the columns of Sun : “ I remember the disappointment that reigned in the locker room that evening. The players were devastated, especially after the great season we had just experienced. The problem was that Rangers were the worst team we could start against. A club made up of veterans who had just barely made it to the playoffs, but who knew how to play to win. »

The worse is yet to come

But the ordeal for the supporters of the Nordiques, yet so enthusiastic after a remarkable regular season, has only just begun. The rumors had leaked and then surrounded the series against the Rangers, the president of the Nordiques Marcel Aubut had made some allusions in front of the camera and was struggling behind the scenes: the NHL in Quebec is threatened. The outcome of the famous lockout did not give birth to the main claim of the owners: the salary cap. It does exist, but it only concerns “rookies”, it will not extend to all players until ten years later. The presence of Gary Bettman at the head of the NHL was to guarantee the interests of the owners, but the influence of the big markets (Toronto, New York, Detroit, Philadelphia), more willing to face the soaring wages, made the difference. The players and the big markets emerged winners from this lockout.

Couv Marcel Aubut

On the other hand, the situation has become critical for small markets, such as that of Quebec. Costs are rising, especially wages paid in US currency, with the US dollar rising sharply against the Canadian dollar. In this economic context of the 1990s, merchandising, TV revenues and attendances in an aging Colosseum no longer manage to cover the expenses of an organization like that of the Nordiques.

Marcel Aubut, a character who is not unanimous in the political landscape, has tried to put water in his wine and convince the highest spheres of the Belle Province, in the first place the mayor Jean-Paul L’ Allier and Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau. But relationships are cold. The mayor seems little invested in the cause and the proposals of Parizeau are too light in the eyes of Aubut, incompatible with professional sport. The lack of real provincial support (the American teams benefiting from significant public funds) and the impossibility of launching the project for a new skating rink condemned the fleur-de-lis team. Aubut will reach out one last time to senior Quebec officials, in vain, the dialogue is broken.

Quebec in shock

On May 25, 1995, nine days after the elimination against the Rangers, Aubut summons all the employees of the Nordiques organization to the Coliseum. In the Quebec enclosure, he announces the extinction of their team. They are literally in shock. In a place usually animated by the excitement of a knowledgeable and passionate public, tears fell that day in the old Colosseum. Communications officer Nicole Bouchard has to deal with the media… some of which had anticipated the formalization to announce it in their columns. Dark memory for her, which testified to Radio-Canada : “ It was so hard this press briefing. I had a job to do, but I lost my first job, the job of my life because I loved hockey so much. Every time I saw the images from the press briefing on TV or in photos, I saw myself crying. I cried the whole time. »

Some players will learn it from the mouth of journalists. This is the case of Jocelyn Thibault, playing golf with the other goalkeeper Stéphane Fiset, confident in Radio-Canada : “ I was really knocked out, it was a real trauma because I didn’t see it coming. It was swirling around in my head because I was trying to figure out all the impacts it was going to have on all of us. »

Infinite sadness in Quebec, the news shakes the whole city and the whole province. Some do not speak of a move but, purely and simply, of a funeral. Quebecers are losing a flagship of their national sport, a symbol of French-speaking Canada and of the alternative to Montreal. But the Quebec rivalry is no more. Quebec is a victim of the unfavorable context for small Canadian markets, from which Winnipeg will also suffer, and of the NHL’s expansion plan of the 90s. Franchises are flourishing in Florida, Arizona and California, in a less traditional setting.

A Nordic Moving

The Quebec Nordiques will become the Colorado Avalanche, Aubut sells the rights to the franchise for an amount of 75 million dollars to the telecommunications company Comsat (since deceased), already owner at the time of the Nuggets in the NBA, and which establishes the hockey team also in Denver. The move will be all the more painful as the Avalanche will win the Stanley Cup in its first year in Colorado, a sharp pain for the fans but also for the former employees of the Nordiques.

A fading hope

Even though the fleur-de-lys team never reached a Stanley Cup final and experienced 599 defeats for 497 victories in the NHL era, the memory of the Nordiques is still very strong. And the question of a return is often at the center of discussions. In recent years, several elements have made those nostalgic for the Nordics optimistic. First of all, a more favorable economic context, in a league that practices salary caps and revenue sharing. This allowed Winnipeg to return to the NHL, Quebec fans have been hoping for the same outcome since the Jets’ comeback. The opening of an ultra-modern enclosure rivaling the best NHL standards is an excellent point, the Videotron Center can accommodate 18,259 spectators in hockey configuration. Finally, the project followed by Quebecor, a giant specializing in media and telecommunications, is no secret to anyone.

Quebec ticked all the boxes. So, when the NHL offered a new entry ticket, hope was reborn more than ever in the « Old Capital ». Quebec was a candidate in 2015, alone against… Vegas. You know the rest, the NHL preferred the candidacy of the future Golden Knights… then that of Seattle. Gary Bettman made it clear on several occasions that Quebec was not a point of interest. The Canadian dollar and the geographical situation of Quebec (Vegas and Seattle allowing a balance between the two conferences) did not play in its favor. The cost of a new franchise has also put investors off. The amount of entry fees in the NHL for the Vegas Golden Knights amounted to nearly 500 million dollars, 650 million for Seattle. Bettman reportedly has the oft-talked-about billion-dollar mark in mind for a potential Houston bid.

The Videotron Center of Quebec

Is hope definitively extinguished? Not necessarily. The economic crisis that will follow the health crisis of COVID-19 will have serious consequences in the sports field. Some teams were already in a delicate situation before the spread of the virus. We think of the Florida Panthers and the Arizona Coyotes, who are struggling to fill their stands. This is also the case for Ottawa, whose attendances are in freefall, with the worst result of the 2019-2020 season, an average of 12,648 spectators. An accentuated fragility of certain markets will be one of the consequences of the crisis.

It does not take more to maintain the hope of a return of the Nordiques, even if the NHL continues to turn a deaf ear. The only way out would therefore be a redistribution of the cards. Failing to be able to contemplate an NHL team again, fans must stick to Quebec’s historic motto,  » I remember « .


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