May. 18, 2018

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The Nordiques Are on the Clock

Eric Lindros, the Quiet Revolution, and what comes next for hockey in Quebec


They’re lined up with polished shovels and branded hard hats: Michel Goulet, Marc Tardif, and Peter Stastny, all in white Nordiques jerseys, lifting dirt in small, ceremonial parcels. This is Quebec City on September 3, 2012. Jean Charest, the Liberal premier who will lose tomorrow’s election to Pauline Marois of the Parti Québécois, has his sleeves rolled up; Regis Labeaume, the mayor, is in a polo shirt and jeans. Overseeing the news conference is Pierre Karl Péladeau, the CEO of Québecor, which–despite contributing zero dollars to the project–will eventually be granted management rights to the nascent arena through an opaque, politically toxic process. This is also before Péladeau makes the decision to leave Québecor to seek (and win) the PQ leadership. For now, everyone’s optimistic.


This is a twenty-five second video of then–Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, talking to a reporter from the CBC. This is 1970. It’s in the midst of what came to be known as the October Crisis, which began when members of the Front de libération du Québec—a separatist organization that had announced itself in 1963 with a series of non-fatal bombings, but by 1969 was setting off explosives at Montreal’s stock exchange and in its mayor’s home—kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner James Cross from his home in the city.

The group’s conditions for Cross’s release included, among other things, freedom for a number of people they considered political prisoners and the broadcast of an FLQ manifesto on the CBC’s airwaves. Five days after they took Cross, the FLQ kidnapped Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s Vice-Premier and Minister of Labour. On October 12, two days after Laporte’s capture, Trudeau’s federal government requested and received troops to patrol Montreal while police searched for the captured officials. You might remember this.

The video is from October 13. Fully-outfitted soldiers are already strutting around Montreal, but this is three days before Trudeau will implement the War Measures Act, which suspends habeas corpus and had previously been used on a once-per-World War-basis. But when reporter Tim Ralfe presses Trudeau on the show of force in response to what most Canadians—including most Montrealers—had viewed as a small fringe group, the Prime Minister doesn’t equivocate:


“There’s a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed. But it’s more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of a soldier’s helmet"

Ralfe: “At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?”

Here, Trudeau sort of shrugs:

“Just watch me.”


With no fuller context than these twenty-five seconds, you surely grasp the general points of the debate: on one hand, a terrorist cell is shirking the order of a civil society by kidnapping and threatening to kill government officials; on the other, the federal government is stripping Canadian citizens of their legal protections and, it can be argued, effectively criminalizing the political beliefs that animate the FLQ and are shared, to various degrees, by millions of Quebecers. (In the month that the War Measures Act was in effect, about five-hundred Quebecers were arrested and held without bail; only sixty-two were ever charged with a crime.)


On October 17, the FLQ announced they had murdered Pierre Laporte. The demands grew to include the name of a police informant, $500,000, and a plane to take them to either Cuba or Algeria. The next day, René Lévesque, who would go on to found the Parti Québecois and try, as the province’s Premier, to negotiate with Canada for Quebec’s sovereignty, called the Prime Minister’s actions “panicky and altogether excessive.” Laporte’s kidnappers would eventually be captured and charged, while those who kidnapped—and eventually released—James Cross successfully negotiated asylum in Cuba.


A climax like this, grave and clumsy, was probably inevitable. The rift between French and English–speaking Canada dates back to when the region was colonized, but began to codify into its modern political camps in the 1960s, in a period known as the Quiet Revolution. Without getting too granular, the revolution began to shift the power in Quebec toward a secularized government and away from the Catholic church. The province became more economically modern, tapping its vast natural resources that had previously been controlled by foreign interests or untouched altogether. Through the ‘60s, Quebec’s government and society grew and morphed rapidly, and recontextualized long-simmering tensions over culture and identity.

But that second-to-last scene allows some ambiguity to seep in. Persecution by whom? By his fellow Québécois, who target him for his Leafs sweater? Or by monsieur Eaton, for ignoring his mother’s request and sending her the symbol of anglo-society?


In 1979, near the height of the separatist movement, the CBC—home of the news and Hockey Night—asked Roch Carrier, a celebrated fiction writer, to explain to the country at large what Quebec truly wanted. Carrier’s first novel, the brutal, surrealist La Guerre, Yes Sir!, dramatized franco-anglo relations in a way that resonated in both worlds; the CBC trusted that he could distill the causes of and potential fallout from the mounting tension with the requisite adult seriousness.

He couldn’t. Only a couple of days before his deadline, Carrier told the network that all he had come up with was an essay as “dull as an editorial in a newspaper.” He wanted to back out, but the CBC explained they’d already promoted his appearance on their airwaves, and that if he absolutely couldn’t finish the assigned address, that he should simply write whatever he wanted, fill up his allotted airtime, and call it a day.

Stuck, Carrier thought back to his childhood in Sainte-Justine, Quebec, and landed on the most traumatic experience he could remember. He turned it into a short story, the first lines of which were printed, in both French and English, on the back of the five-dollar bill: “The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places—the school, the church, and the skating rink—but our real life was on the skating rink.”

The story follows a young Roch Carrier who, like all the other boys in Sainte-Justine, has a quasi-religious reverence for the great Montreal Canadiens winger, Maurice Richard. All the boys tape their sticks and lace their skates like Richard; they even use glue to mimic The Rocket’s carefully slicked hair. Most importantly, they all wear red Canadiens jerseys with Richard’s number nine on the back. (For years, aided by a series of bizarre rules loopholes, Montreal's near-monopoly on young, French-Canadian hockey talent, further solidified the cultural divide between the Canadiens and the rest of the league, but particularly the Maple Leafs. To this day, there’s a de facto expectation that Montreal’s coaches and general manager be bilingual at least.)

 Soon, Roch’s Richard jersey begins to shrink and tear. His mother, alarmed that other families will think they’re poor, pulls out a catalogue for Eaton’s, the giant (and anglo) mail-order department store. Though Roch’s mother insists that her children have clothes from Eaton’s as opposed to the comparatively lower-class general store in town, she has no patience for the order forms, which are printed in English. So she writes to “Monsieur Eaton,” in French, asking for a new sweater for her son, enclosing three dollars.

But when the sweater arrives, it isn’t a Richard sweater at all; instead of the Canadiens, young Roch is expected to wear the crest of the hated Toronto Maple Leafs. He weeps as his mother pulls it over his shoulders. She admonishes him, explaining that if he refuses to wear the jersey, she’ll have to write to monsieur Eaton and, having certainly offend him by showing a distaste for his beloved Maple Leafs, be waiting until spring for a response. “You won’t have played a single game,” she tells Roch. (Now might be a good time to mention that the story’s original title was “Une abominable fuel d’érable sur la glace,” or “An Abominable Maple Leaf on the Ice.”)


When Roch, draped in blue and white, goes to play with his friends, he’s held out of the game by his suddenly icy teammates until the third period, when one of the other boys gets cut by a high stick. Roch jumps onto the ice—“my moment had come!”—only to be penalized by the referee, who calls too many men on the ice. Roch loses his temper: “That was too much! It was unfair! It was persecution! It was because of my blue sweater!” He slams his stick on the ice, so hard that it breaks in half. The referee chastises him, and tells Roch to go to church to repent for his sins. The story ends with the young boy sitting quietly in a pew, praying that God will send moths to eat up his Maple Leafs sweater.

Carrier’s story, which was made into a short movie and eventually published as an illustrated children’s book in both languages (under the name The Hockey Sweater/Le chandail de hockey), is one of the most beloved works of pop literature in Canada. It’s the first book I ever read, on my own, to myself. It’s also a very clear allegory for the tensions that underscore the push for sovereignty. The language split is obvious; Richard is the nationalist idol; the referee, who we learn in the final scene is a vicar, directs Roch to pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec’s sole moral authority: the church.


But that second-to-last scene, the one that ends with Roch breaking his stick, allows some ambiguity to seep in. First of all, it’s never made clear if the referee (and vicar) is justified in penalizing him: Carrier leaves it open-ended as to whether young Roch really was the sixth man on for his team, or if the call was purely punitive. And when he slams down his stick and shouts about persecution—persecution by whom? By his fellow Québécois, who target him for his Leafs sweater? Or by monsieur Eaton, for ignoring his mother’s request and sending her the symbol of anglo-society?



In 1991, the same year the sovereignty-focused Bloc Québécois was formed—same month, in fact—the Quebec Nordiques drafted Eric Lindros with the top pick in the NHL Entry Draft. Lindros was a prospect with little precedent: that season, when he was seventeen, he scored seventy-one goals and had 149 points for the Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals. Prior to that year, the single-season points record for an underage player was 111; his seventy-one goals ranked second all-time for players of any age. And at six feet four inches tall and over 220 pounds, he was an imposing physical presence, manhandling players older than him and generally looking like he would be a franchise-changing force in the NHL.

But his entrance into junior hockey was messy. He had been taken by the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds in the OHL draft, but refused to report to the team, and was eventually traded to Oshawa. Prior to the NHL draft in 1991 he and his agent similarly made it clear that Lindros would not sign with the Quebec Nordiques, who had won only sixteen games to again finish dead-last in the league. A number of reasons were officially cited (a lack of endorsement opportunities, the rabid Canadian press, the sorry state of the Nordiques) and others were whispered about (a rocky relationship with Quebec’s owner, Marcel Aubut). From the Toledo Blade in February of 1992: “His parents, Carl and Bonnie, are Eric’s mouthpiece. They say their son will not play in a province where endorsement opportunities are fewer and the language [a] barrier and the culture different.” To Nordiques fans, the reason could be distilled: Eric Lindros from Ontario didn’t want to play hockey in Quebec.


The Nordiques took him anyway and Lindros, predictably, refused to report, preferring to play another year in Oshawa. By the summer of 1992, the Nordiques had no choice but to make a deal for his rights. (At one point there was rumored to be a trade in place to send him to the Detroit Red Wings, but Steve Yzerman told reporters that he, too, would refuse to report to Quebec.) On the day of the 1992 draft, the Nordiques reached an agreement—two, actually, one with the Philadelphia Flyers and another with the New York Rangers. An outside arbitrator later ruled that the Philadelphia trade, which had been agreed to in principle before the Rangers got involved, was enforceable; Lindros became a Flyer. In 2016, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame—which, for the record, is in Toronto.

After three more seasons in Quebec City, the Nordiques packed up and moved to Denver, becoming the Colorado Avalanche. In their first year in Denver, the Avalanche—helped in no small part by the players from the Lindros deal, including Peter Forsberg—won the Stanley Cup, something the franchise never did in Canada. In 1998, Roch Carrier ran in Quebec’s provincial election, for the Liberals. He lost, narrowly.


Three years ago, a clot of corporate acronyms finished construction on the new arena in Quebec City. It is, by all accounts, state-of-the-art, and currently houses the Quebec Major Junior League's Remparts. But Québecor, the communications conglomerate that operates the arena (the accent was added to its English logo after a shareholder vote in 2012) isn’t content with junior hockey. The goal, of course, is for the Centre Vidéotron to host an NHL team. In the summer of 2016, the league passed over Quebec in favor of expansion to Las Vegas, and this summer, it’s expected to announce that a new team will be placed in Seattle. There are persistent rumors: the Carolina Hurricanes brass might be touring it one week, another prospective expansion-franchise owner the next. Out in Western Canada, Centre Vidéotron is wielded as a threat. During an ugly battle for a publicly-financed new arena–which even saw the NHL attempt to mettle in a mayoral race–then-Calgary Flames president Brian Burke threatened that, unless the city or province would blink first, the team could be moved right into the gleaming new rink. For now, it sits, empty.

Paul Thompson is a Los Angeles based writer and critic. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Victory Journal, and New York Magazine. His book, I FEEL LIKE DYING, was released in 2016. 

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