Quebec Still Longs for Its Lost Hockey Team, a Nationalist Symbol

When the Nordiques left Quebec nearly 30 years ago, the hockey team’s departure fueled the kind of mythologizing and nostalgia familiar to fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Nordiques’ stint in Quebec, playing there in the N.H.L. from 1979 to 1995, overlapped with the French-speaking province’s two failed attempts to secede from the rest of Canada, and the team’s identity melded with that of their fans: a linguistic minority struggling to assert itself in a part of the world dominated by English speakers.

The Nordiques wore their politics on their sleeves, literally, putting the Quebec flag’s fleur-de-lis on their uniforms. They also sang Canada’s national anthem only in French.

The team’s exit “left a hole in Quebec City and Quebec regional politics, and a hole in Francophone identity, as well,” said Jean-François Lisée, who led the separatist Parti Québécois from 2016 to 2018, and who is now a columnist for the newspaper Le Devoir.

So ever since the financially ailing Nordiques decamped for Denver, generations of Quebec’s political leaders have sought to bring them back, going as far as building an arena that cost 370 million Canadian dollars (nearly $280 million), even as economic changes have made the team’s return increasingly unlikely.

“People see themselves in a national concept and in a hockey team, or in the memory of a hockey team, and politicians have tried to harness this sense of nationalism for political gains,” said Martin Pâquet, a historian of Quebec at the University of Laval in Quebec. “That’s essentially why they keep calling for the return of the Nordiques.”

The latest to do just that was the government of Premier François Legault, who was overwhelmingly re-elected to a second term in 2022, but whose approval ratings have been falling this past year because of a series of missteps, including approving a 30 percent salary raise for lawmakers.

The Vidéotron Center, the arena that provincial and city leaders built in 2015 with public funds to show the N.H.L. how committed they were to getting a team.Credit…Renaud Philippe for The New York Times

In November, his government announced with great fanfare that it had agreed to pay 5 million to 7 million Canadian dollars ($3.8 million and $5.3 million) for the Los Angeles Kings to play two preseason games in Quebec next October, as part of a strategic maneuver to keep pressing the N.H.L. for the city’s own team.

Such a move would have perhaps led to at least a blip up in the polls in the past. But this time, it backfired. Roundly criticized, the announcement pushed Mr. Legault’s ratings farther down, helping to make him the most unpopular of Canada’s 10 provincial leaders, according to polling by the Angus Reid Institute.

Was the criticism, and the missing bump in the polls, because of the timing of the announcement? It came around the same time that hundreds of thousands of the province’s public schoolteachers and health care workers went on strike, demanding better wages.

Or was it the cost of the deal, a lot of money spent on a long-shot gamble? Mr. Legault’s own finance minister, who has nicknamed himself the “minister of the Nordiques,” acknowledged candidly, if imprudently, that the odds of getting back a team were only 10 percent.

Maybe it was the ebbing of nationalist feelings among the French Québécois, especially the young. Or was it just the passing of time?

“If a couple has been separated because one of the members left some 25 years ago, it’s really time to move on,” Mr. Pâquet said.

Of course, the province of Quebec does still have an N.H.L. team: For decades, the Montreal Canadiens have been one of the league’s most storied franchises.

A game between the Montreal Canadiens and Quebec Nordiques, in blue, in 1980. The two teams were archrivals.Credit…Denis Brodeur/NHLI, via Getty Images

But for many in Quebec, being a fan of the Canadiens was never an option — they had never been French Canadian enough. The Canadiens played in Montreal, the multicultural, diverse, bilingual metropolis that is the historical rival of the predominantly French-speaking Quebec City.

Outside the province, though, the Canadiens were famous for their French Canadian stars, like Guy Lafleur.

As Quebec’s independence movement emerged in the 1960s, so did hopes for an N.H.L. team in Quebec City, in what was hoped would eventually become the capital of a new nation. The city got its team in 1979 after the Nordiques and others in a smaller league were absorbed into the N.H.L.

After people in Quebec voted against independence the following year, in the province’s first referendum, some channeled their frustrated nationalist sentiments into fierce support of the Nordiques. Games between the Nordiques and the Canadiens took on mythic proportions, acting as proxies for larger battles.

“We learned at a very young age to hate the Canadiens,” said Jocelyn Simard, 65, a French Québécois man who has lived all his life in Quebec City and grew up as a die-hard fan of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Once the Nordiques arrived, Mr. Simard felt he had found the team he was waiting for his whole life. While the Canadian anthem was sung in both French and English before games elsewhere, only French was heard in the Nordiques’ arena. Mr. Lafleur would play his final two seasons in a long career for the Nordiques.

A girl wearing a jersey of the much-missed Quebec Nordiques, at a game in December of the Remparts, of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.Credit…Renaud Philippe for The New York Times

“In the end, many, many French Canadians identified more with the Nordiques than the Montreal Canadiens,” Mr. Simard said, adding that he had not lost hope in a return of the Nordiques.

Mr. Simard spoke as he watched a game played by Quebec’s junior league team, the Remparts, at the Vidéotron Center — the pricey arena that provincial and city leaders built in 2015 with public funds to show the N.H.L. how committed they were to getting a team.

But if fans of Mr. Simard’s generation tended to share his feelings toward the Nordiques, the team’s significance did not seem to resonate with younger hockey fans at the arena, many born after the team’s departure.

“Me, I’m a fan of the Montreal Canadiens, whereas my father still has the Nordiques in his mind,” said Mathis Drolet, 17, a student who grew up in Quebec.

His friend, Justin Tremblay, 17, said he was aware of how the Nordiques were tied to previous generations’ aspirations — “Quebec wanting to become a nation and all that” — but those hopes felt distant to him.

“They’re things we learned at school,” Mr. Tremblay said.

Located in the league’s smallest market — the Quebec metropolitan area now has about 800,000 people — the Nordiques struggled financially for years and left for Denver in 1995. In the team’s first season in the United States, renamed the Colorado Avalanche, it won the Stanley Cup — deepening a sense of betrayal in Quebec.

The Parti Québécois-led government at the time had refused the Nordiques’ owner’s request for a bailout — just months, it turned out, before the province’s second referendum on independence from Canada.

Nordiques memorabilia owned by François Gariépy, a radio host in Quebec.Credit…Renaud Philippe for The New York Times

The referendum failed by a razor-thin margin — with some politicians and political experts eventually blaming the loss on the government’s refusal to bail out the Nordiques.

And so to this day, Quebec’s political leaders vow to bring back the Nordiques, and even the slightest development can generate significant attention in the local news media.

“In Quebec City, those stories are on the front page of newspapers,” said Frank Pons, a professor on sports management at the University of Laval.

But most hockey industry experts say the chances of a return are close to nonexistent.

In recent years, the N.H.L. has chosen to expand in bigger markets, including Seattle and Las Vegas, and has given no indication of seriously entertaining Quebec as a candidate for expansion or relocation, Mr. Pons said. For the N.H.L., Quebec and its small television market just make little business sense.

“It’s an economic approach,” he said, “whereas in Quebec, it’s an emotional approach.”

Given the lingering emotions toward the Nordiques, few expect politicians to acknowledge the cold, hard truth about the chances of the Nordiques ever coming home.

“How many votes would that get you?” said Mr. Lisée, the former party leader. “If you don’t want to be in power, you can say that if you think that. Most politicians will say it would be such a great thing to have the Nordiques back.”

A display outside the Vidéotron Center teaches fans about the history of the Nordiques.Credit…Renaud Philippe for The New York Times
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