Quebec City longs for a team and a Cup

Scott Young, the three-time U.S. Olympian, spent three NHL seasons in the Ville de Québec. The last, 1994-95, was one of petite triumph and great anguish for the aged city. That was the year the Nordiques won their first division title in nearly a decade. That was the year the Nordiques left.

As the Nordiques skated against the New York Rangers in the first round of that year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, the rumors persisted: When the season was over, the franchise would be sold and moved. Players heard the latest scuttlebutt from their agents. The city’s newspapers reported on the failed attempt by club president Marcel Aubut to obtain financial assistance from the provincial government.

"Even if we couldn’t understand everything written in a French paper,” Young recalled in a telephone interview last week, “we could pick out the word ‘Denver.’ ”

And so it was: Soon after the Rangers ousted them in six games, the Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche. One year later, they won the Stanley Cup.

The ’95 Nordiques are worth remembering now, in the context of another team aspiring for the Cup without assurances about where it will play next season. The Phoenix Coyotes, bought out of bankruptcy by the NHL three years ago, are enjoying the deepest playoff run in franchise history. They clinched a berth in the Western Conference finals Monday night, hours after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced an “understanding” that the league intends to sell the team to a group led by Greg Jamison, former CEO of the San Jose Sharks.

Still, many details remain unresolved. The terms of the purchase have not been finalized, nor is there a long-term lease for the Coyotes at Arena in financially strained Glendale, Ariz. If the deal between the NHL and Jamison falls apart, reviving the possibility of relocation, there is one destination more likely than all the rest. Quebec City.

“It’s kind of similar,” said Stéphane Fiset, a goaltender for the ’95 Nordiques, when asked about the comparison. “The difference is they are closer to staying in Phoenix than we were in Quebec.”

The Quebec City speculation is part of the sport’s Canadian repatriation movement. The NHL’s return to Winnipeg this season was an unassailable success. Winnipeg, like Quebec City, lost its franchise in the mid-1990s. But so much is different now. Revenue sharing has helped smaller-market teams. The Canadian dollar is on par with its U.S. counterpart. Construction on a new arena in Quebec City is scheduled to begin this year. In a city where regular-season games were front-page news, there is a ravenous appetite for the NHL after nearly two decades of longing.

“The people are ready,” said Fiset, who was born in Montreal and resides near Quebec City. “The Canadian and American money is almost even. If they put a team there, it’s going to do well. They’re going to be sharing revenues with the teams that need help, not the other way around.”

If the Coyotes are paying attention to the ownership drama, it hasn’t been evident in their play. They dispatched the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, the Nashville Predators in five. They have played six overtime games in this postseason and won four.

Hockey players are, by nature, among the most focused in professional sports. They become even more regimented in these weeks when playoff stubble thickens to a beard. They will say the business machinations don’t concern them.

And yet …

“You talk about how it doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t affect you, it’s not a distraction,” said Young, now the head coach at his alma mater, St. Mark’s School in Massachusetts. “You can’t blame anything on it, but you’re aware of it. There’s always a rumor out there. You can’t help but talk about it in the locker room at times. Someone hears something new, they bring it up, and you start wondering about your future and where it might be.

“It’s a different time now, with Twitter and Facebook and all this stuff. We didn’t have that back then. I could see it being a distraction. ‘I heard this, I heard that.’ It’s endless, really.”

The uncertainty affected every player differently. Craig Wolanin, a defenseman from Michigan, had a young family to think about. His wife, Chantal, is a native of Quebec City, and she recently had given birth to the couple’s first child. “From a family standpoint, it was at the forefront of my mind,” Wolanin recalled this week. “We had to get a lot of non-hockey issues settled if we were going to move.”

Young said the Nordiques had a team meeting near the end of the ’95 season, during which management acknowledged the possibility of a move. The message was succinct: This could happen, but it’s entirely out of your control. Just focus on this season. Young believes it was head coach Marc Crawford who addressed the team, but he’s not sure. After all, that was 17 years ago. More vivid is Young’s recollection of his mood after the season-ending Game 6 loss at Madison Square Garden.

“An empty feeling,” he said. “Getting knocked out of the playoffs is bad enough. Thinking that could be it for the franchise, it was a very strange feeling — that in such a great hockey town, there was a very real chance that was the last game for the organization.”

Within days of the Nordiques’ elimination, Young said team captain Joe Sakic told him, “It looks like it’s going to be Denver.”

The move was particularly difficult for the team’s French-Canadian players, who had enjoyed spending the hockey season (and school year) in their home province. “The guys who had families, their kids were speaking only French,” Fiset said. “The kids had to learn English really quickly. They had to be in English schools by August. That was hard on those families. The one thing that made it easier for us was that it wasn’t only one player moving. It was the whole team.”

Would the Nordiques have won the Cup in ’96 if they were playing in Quebec, rather than Colorado? Perhaps. Of Colorado’s top eight playoff scorers that year, seven were Nordiques holdovers — including Sakic and Peter Forsberg, two of their generation’s greatest players. Yet, the team would have been short one Hall of Fame goaltender: Patrick Roy arrived in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens that December. In those days, intra-province dealing was as common as trade agreements between the U.S. and Cuba. (Imagine the Red Sox sending Dustin Pedroia to the Yankees.)

Never, never, never,” Fiset said. “That trade would have been impossible.”

Young remembers thinking about the Quebec fans on the night of June 10, 1996, minutes after the Avalanche clinched the Cup with a triple-overtime win over the Florida Panthers. “After that initial celebration,” Young said, “you thought, ‘Wow, we leave and then win it the first year, after they’ve been dying for a Cup.’ ”

Nearly 20 years later, they’re still waiting. Wolanin knows that from the Quebec television stations his wife watches on the satellite dish at home.

Wolanin figures the Coyotes players aren’t worried about next year, now that they’re only eight wins from the Cup. He has followed the playoffs and thinks Phoenix has a legitimate chance to win it all, certainly as much of a shot as anyone else. Fiset has kept track of the Coyotes, too, albeit for a slightly different reason: If they move to Quebec City, he wants to buy two season tickets.

Now, that possibility is more remote than it was a week ago. In that respect, the more the Coyotes win, the crueler it becomes for the Québécois: Their former team won the first year after it left. What if their almost-team does the same, in the year when it deked toward Quebec and spun back to Phoenix?