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."

Several weeks ago, Louis Belvoir, his wife, Yvonne, and another couple had dinner at La Fenouillere, one of the city's great restaurants, with a view of the graceful Pierre Laporte Bridge through the window and a perfectly roasted rack of lamb on the plate. When word circulated through the dining room that the Colorado Avalanche had just beaten the Red Wings, in Detroit, to take a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals, Belvoir says, the people at his table grew silent. "You know, Samuel de Champlain set up a strategic fort on the site of this city in 1608. But it took almost 400 years for the first Detroit Red Wing fans to show up. I'm ashamed to say it, but I wanted Detroit to go to the Cup final so we wouldn't have to go through this. Our hope, of course, is for Montreal in years to come."

For now, though, the Avalanche, nee les Nordiques, stands on the brink of greatness, and all of Quebec City seems to have lost its head over the prospect. Like Saint Jean Baptiste.

Sometimes you can find everything you're looking for in a detail.
On Tuesday morning I was stumbling to the corner store to get three gallons of orange juice and 500 aspirin when I saw something I haven't seen in eleven years on my street. Three boys--nine, ten years old--were out there on the pavement in baggy shorts, T-shirts the size of houses and sneakers that looked four sizes too big, doing what little boys have always done: fantasizing about their heroes.

This time, though, the kids had hockey sticks with dirty tape on the blades, and they were batting an old tennis ball around the street. This was something new in the neighborhood, so I stopped for a moment to watch and listen.

"Three seconds left on the power play!" one kid yelled. "Joe Sakic shoots!" He let fly with a three-mile-an-hour slap shot that dribbled off his friend's knee. "Score!"

It was no surprise that the boy had scored. In the sunlit attic of a kid's imagination, no possibility exists but to score, and with Monday night's draining Stanley Cup marathon still fresh in his mind, some inner urge had told the boy to get this thing over with right now.

A second kid now took up the narrative. "Lemieux checks Fitzgerald into the boards," he bellowed, and checked his friend into a Toyota Corolla. "Two minutes! Roughing!" After a few seconds' pause, a related idea occurred to him. He put a halfhearted scowl on his face and clenched both fists. "Now Lemieux wants to fight!"

Well, maybe. More likely, Lemieux wants to rest. We all do. After a month's worth of civic high blood pressure, we have that rarest of things--public, communal satisfaction--and now it's time to enjoy it. The glow comes from an artificial source (a hockey team we barely know has won the city's first championship), and it won't last forever. But it feels pretty good, doesn't it? Feels pretty good that the kid inside all of us has scored the winning goal.


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