Roch Carrier’s classic The Hockey Sweater (1980), conjures rich textures of childhood memory: pure love of sport, the idea of hero, and an introduction to bitter-sweet rivalry. The pride and passion for Les Canadiens feels palpable, as a young fan is forced to wear the emblem of his favourite team's enemy.
The original title– "An abominable maple leaf on the ice", animates rivalry, poking fun at the other best hockey team in the world.
Winner of 13 Stanley Cups, also four-time Conference finalists since the Habs last won it all in 1993; to the south of Montreal, the Toronto Maple Leafs will always be my team.
Another less fortunate team, the Québec Nordiques, has become my team to the north.
"The enemy of my enemy is my friend?"
The emblem of the one truly Francophone organization to have existed in the NHL may only appear bizarre on an Anglophone. The hockey t-shirt I bought during my first trip to Quebec City has become a favourite. I wear it often, along with its inherent nostalgia.
"Québec Nordiques?" shouts a red-faced man.
"Yes, are you a fan?" I respond.
"WTF?" says his face, turning a deeper shade of red.
"Tu est un Anglophone. You are from Tree [sic] Rivers and you like les Nordiques?" he spouts.
"We study French at l’Université de Québec a Trois-Rivières", I say.
"The people of Québec are very, very friendly", says my classmate, Tijana Jukic, her most expressive French on display.
From across the St. Lawrence River, we were attracted to the small village of Saint-Grégoire by two needle sharp steeples of its church. But I would not ask God to send me right away 100 million moths that would eat up my Nordiques t-shirt. The local arbiter for the Nordiques Preservation Society shifts from aggressive to welcoming after a few turns of our aw-shucks French. We stumble along in relief.
"Oh, mon Dieu!"
When the woman behind the lunch counter also appears taken aback by my accent and t-shirt combo, I realize that if I want to keep carrying the symbol of les Nordiques on my chest, I will have to communicate why I don the hockey t-shirt. On the ride back to Trois-Rivières, I express to the taxi driver how, as a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, I feel a kinship to his Québec Nordiques.
Consider the following:
Mats Sundin, the great Swedish import, graced both clubs with his quiet superstardom.
Neither team has won a Stanley Cup (in the modern era).
Fans of both teams are long suffering, revealing passion like an exposed nerve.
Both clubs have proud tradition, love of team, and a wellspring of hope.
Both teams, then, are of the past and future.
Both too have shared as bitter-sweet rival the Montreal Canadiens.
* * *
I visit Quebec City during the 2010 NHL playoffs, wherein the Montreal Canadians make their improbable run past the Pittsburgh Penguins en route to their first trip to the Conference finals since 1993.
After hearing the cries of adoring fans in my hotel and conversing with them post-game, I think back to the modern battle of Québec (1984, ‘85, ‘87, and ‘93), I watched as a child as late as permitted, negotiating bed time. The rivalry between the Habs and Nords electrified the whole province then, like two spirits fighting for the same soul.
Like the Maple Leafs, les Nordiques, donned the blue and white. In the place of our maple leaf stands a red n integrated with hockey stick, poised for face-off. What a shame these northerners were forced to fly south.
What a cruel twist of fate, wrought by the hockey gods, or by a short-sighted provincial government, or perhaps by a non-sentimental and non-Canadian NHL commissioner, that the transplanted franchise would win the Stanley Cup as the Colorado Avalanche, one year after leaving Québec.
In speaking to the friendly people at l’Auberge de la Place d'Armes and Pub Saint-Patrick, I get the sense that switching allegiance from les Nordiques to les Canadiens, for some, had meant an uneasy adjustment, a gradual process that eventually felt right. Le Bleu-Blanc-et-Rouge represents the province, as its only NHL hockey team..... for now. I buy the t-shirt the next day.
Fresh jerseys and t-shirts still hang from storefront windows donning the names of Tardif, Goulet, Stasny, and Sakic. Les Nordiques also hang suspended, somewhere in time between 1979 and 1995.
As Maple Leafs fans, the 1967 Stanley Cup victory and its 44-year drought to follow, etched into our psyches, we too hold fast to the past.
And lest we forget: les Nordiques will return one day.
What does that mean to the community, both French and English, and to the city as a whole? What will we learn by talking with restaurant and bar owners, hockey players and coaches, merchandisers, the converted, and the die-hard super fans on the street, especially those whose hearts broke more than a little bit when Joe Sakic and company packed up and set off for the Rocky Mountains?
Hope is building along with the a new hockey arena for the city of Quebec, while the city of Toronto sees its Maple Leafs, amidst a promising rebuild, missing the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season. Both teams honour past heroes, and hope to get back to their historical roots, get back into the hearts of dormant fans and.....of course, get back to the important business of defeating the Montreal Canadiens, en route to Stanley Cup victory.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend.