Sacred Blue

On June 24 the good people of Quebec will celebrate the feast of Saint Jean, commemorating the good works and the martyrdom of John the Baptist. Those conversant with the New Testament, or--failing that--who've seen a couple of Cecil B. DeMille movies, know that Jesus Christ began his public life by submitting himself to John's baptism at the River Jordan and that John was eventually imprisoned by Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. After downing a few cups of the local cabernet at a banquet, the story goes, Herod rashly promised his seductive stepdaughter Salome anything she wanted. Salome probably could have scored a nice little hideaway on the Red Sea or a brand-new chariot. Instead, she demanded John the Baptist's head on a platter. Done, said Herod. Fetch the ax.

That brings us to the Stanley Cup. And to the profound fever that grips our city. And to the even more profound tristesse that afflicts another place--Quebec City.

"Hockey fans here are philosophical about this," reports Marie-Claire Shada, an old college friend who is a native of the lovely, 300-year-old walled city in eastern Canada. "But the truth of the situation is inescapable: We are all wondering here--and tout le monde loves hockey in Quebec--why, in the seventeenth year, all of this is finally coming to pass."

Why, indeed. French-speaking Quebecois have threatened to secede from the Canadian union for decades, and just such a proposal was narrowly defeated at the polls only last year. But no one in Quebec City wanted to secede from the National Hockey League. When it happened, when the beloved but cash-poor Nordiques moved to Denver after sixteen seasons, the average fan of le hockey felt, well, like Saint Jean Baptiste--after Herod got through with him.

"More or less," Marie-Claire confirms. "The Cleveland Browns move to Baltimore and everyone is upset in Cleveland. Understandable. But I'm not sure that even in Cleveland football means what hockey means here."

What does hockey mean in Quebec City?
"Roman Catholicism is the established religion," Marie-Claire explains, "and French hegemony is the local sacrament. For almost two centuries after the British conquest, back in 1759, our obsession was survivance--the survival of French culture. So families had ten or twelve or thirteen kids for generations on end. But this I also know: Hockey is as important here as the Church or remaining French all the way down in your soul. Cleveland goes to Baltimore? I understand. But for us, the Nordiques going to Denver was like your New York Yankees moving to Tahiti."

Ever since the Colorado Avalanche began its first-round playoff against Vancouver, the transplanted club has been front-page news in Le Soleil, Quebec City's French-language daily, and in the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, published in English. Every Joe Sakic poke check and Patrick Roy save is a lead item on the TV sports news in this city of 660,000, and when Avs star Claude Lemieux--who never even played for les Nordiques--got himself suspended for the first two games of the Stanley Cup final for that controversial hit on Detroit's Kris Draper, "you would have thought the prime minister had been shot," Marie-Claire says. "Every kid plays hockey here, and we suffered through good and bad with the Nordiques. Now they are about to win the Stanley Cup, and you will be the beneficiaries."

Try to call the Colisee de Quebec, the arena that was home to the Nordiques for sixteen years, and you get a "number no longer in service" message--in two languages. Ask a sophisticated, puck-mad Quebecois lawyer named Louis Belvoir, having an aperitif in the bar at the magnificent Chateau Frontenac Hotel, high above the St. Lawrence River, what he thinks about the scattering of "Thank you, Quebec" banners in the throngs at Colorado Avalanche playoff games and a momentary silence breaks out at the other end of the phone line. Then this: "That would be 'Merci, Quebec,' and it would also be inadequate in every sense!"

But you needn't be French Canadian to feel the pangs of loss. Carpenter and electrician Albert Chatman, a member of Quebec's English-speaking mi-nority, says he has little sympathy for the French separatists in his home province and that huge gulfs--cultural, culinary and religious--still divide the two groups. But they share one huge chunk of history and embrace one common mythology. "It's hockey," Chatman says. "Hockey has the same meaning here that baseball used to have in your country. Did you know that, officially, lacrosse is our 'national sport'? Do not believe that for an instant. Up here, hockey is a binding force. Maybe the only one. And now the Stanley Cup--our Stanley Cup--is going to land in Denver. I can't believe it."

French or English, one matter on which everyone in Quebec City seems to agree is the Patrick Roy Effect. Without Roy's splendid goaltending in 1995-96, well-versed, dyed-in-the-wool hockey fans from the north say, the Avalanche wouldn't be where they are tonight. And without the move to Denver, the team wouldn't have Roy. "Montreal Canadiens and Quebec Nordiques--you can imagine the intensity of the rivalry," Marie-Claire Shada says. "On the ice, it was like Greeks and Turks. The Canadiens would never have traded Patrick to us if the team was still here. Not if he'd set the Forum on fire or declared his undying loyalty to Queen Elizabeth. So, yes, there is an irony in all of this: You are going to win the Cup, but we wouldn't have had the one player that made it possible."

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