The two teams were fierce rivals right from the entrance of the Nordiques into the NHL via the 1979 WHA/NHL merger. During an era where French Canada was torn on the issue of separatism, the province was equally divided by the on-ice battle for provincial hockey supremacy. Guy Carbonneau once stated that even players' families would fight and argue over which team deserved bragging rights. While the rivalry was always heated, it reached it's boiling point during the 1984 playoffs in dramatic fashion.
The Habs didn't fare so well in the regular season that year, finishing below .500 at 35-40-5 and 4th in the Adams division ahead of only the Hartford Whalers. Seems odd, considering that the team had names like Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Steve Shutt and Bob Gainey. But, all of those guys were in their 30's, so the Canadiens relied heavily on youngsters like Mats Naslund, Guy Carbonneau and Bobby Smith. The Nordiques, on the other hand, were very strong and considered to be a contender to make the cup finals, despite finishing only one position ahead of the Canadiens. They were a highly potent offensive team led by the brothers Stasny, Wilf Paiement and 56 goal scorer Michel Goulet. Neither team was overly stacked with neanderthals, but they did have some good fighters, most notably Dale Hunter for the Nordiques and Chris Nilan for the Habs.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Habs faced the top team from the Adams division that year... You guessed it, the Boston Bruins. In quite the satisfying upset, the Habs stomped the Bruins and took a 3-0 sweep (best of 5) to head to the second round. The Nordiques completed a similar feat by sweeping the Buffalo Sabres 3-0 despite the Sabres holding home ice advantage. The stage was now set for the Battle of Quebec in the Adams division final.
The Habs rolled with rookie goaltender Steve Penney throughout the '84 playoffs, which were really the highlight of his career. Penney played very well against the Bruins and continued his strong play against the Nordiques in round two. While the Nordiques took game one 4-2, Penney played excellent in the following game as the Habs tied the series with a 4-1 win. Then the series transitioned to the Forum where Penney and the Habs won game three 2-1 to take the series lead. The Nordiques, equal to the task, took a 4-3 overtime victory to send the series back to Quebec tied at two. Then Penney went beast-mode and posted a 4-0 shutout in game five to retake the series lead for the Canadiens. By most accounts, the series to this point was predictably chippy, leading Canadiens broadcaster Dick Irvin to comment on the "explosive" anger building up between the teams. Queue game six, April 20th 1984, at the Montreal Forum.
As you can see in the video above, the anger really did explode. It took all of 23 seconds of game play for the first fight to break out between the Canadiens' Mike McPhee and the Nordiques Wilf Paiement. If it wasn't obvious before the game, it had certainly become apparent that this game was going to get nasty. The Nordiques then opened the scoring, which you would think might make a guy like Dale Hunter play smart, but how naive you would be to think that. Hunter started taking runs at Penney as the period went on, and things got increasingly chippy. Then, just as the first period was coming to a close, Guy Carbonneau was taken down hard in front of the Quebec net, which really pissed off Chris Nilan. This drew one of those usual meetings of the minds in front of the net that is very typical of any hockey game. But, this wasn't any hockey game and it happened at a time when both teams were leaving the benches for the end of the period. Rather than head for the room, nearly the entirety of both benches cleared for a full out donnybrook. I won't try to explain everything that happened, the video above will help you with that. But, I will say that Jean Hamel's career was essentially ended in the brawl. He was suckered by the Nordiques' Louis Sleigher and sustained an eye injury. While he did return the following year, he re-aggravated the injury and had to retire from hockey.
The third period was actually delayed because referee Bruce Hood had a hell of a lot of penalties to sort out. When they finally came out, as penalties were still being announced, the brawl broke out again. The funny part is that several players who were out brawling before the start of the third were supposed to have been ejected at the end of the second, but were never informed. I suppose the officials can't really be blamed due to the sheer chaos at the end of the second, but I still wonder how that could have happened. The aforementioned Louis Sleigher was one of those allowed to return to the ice, which prompted Mark Hunter to take a swing at him with his stick. Dale Hunter, who was held on the bench for round one, then fought his brother in a spirited tilt as only brothers can. Guy Carbonneau was right; this rivalry even made family members go at it. The brawl continued on pretty much exactly as it had been going to end the second. Really good stuff... Or bad stuff... Once again depending on your opinion of fighting in hockey.
Ultimately, 12 players were ejected and some 252 penalty minutes were handed out. Coaches were forced to shorten the benches in a way that has, and probably will never be seen again. The Nordiques stretched their lead to 2-0, but led by Steve Shutt with two goals, the Habs exploded for five third period goals. The Habs won the game by a final score of 5-3 and took a 4-2 series win over their provincial rivals. Although they had won the Battle of Quebec, it may have taken something out of them, as they subsequently fell in the conference finals to the defending champion New York Islanders.
Today, a brawl like this would probably never happen. I'm not saying it couldn't but with the way discipline is handled today I don't see it as being at all likely. It should suffice to say that the NHL wheel of justice would spit out some crazy suspensions if this happened nowadays. Personally, I happen to be among those who think that fighting is a part of the game, and while not an important part, I cannot deny it's entertainment value. I would have been cheering very loudly if I were in the forum 29 years ago. If you disagree with me, well that is certainly your prerogative. But if you watched that video above and didn't get just a little bit excited then I suppose we're just cut from a different cloth.
Fighting aside, I don't think anyone can argue that the return of the Nordiques, which is definitely not out of the question, would be amazing for hockey and for us as Habs fans. There is nothing like a good rivalry game to get the hate flowing and make us that more invested in a game; regular season and even more so in the playoffs. While we will probably never see another Good Friday Massacre, I have hope that we will one day see another Habs/Nordiques clash on the ice.