Friday, February 24, 2012

Nomads of the North

For over 16 years, they have been a fan base without a team.

The Quebec Nordiques only exist in the history books now

The Quebec Nordiques started as members of the upstart World Hockey Association in 1972, winning two division titles. They won their first-and-only world championship in 1976-77, defeating the Winnipeg Jets to claim the Avco Cup.

The Nordiques won the WHA's Avco Cup in 1976-77 (Screenshot courtesy: Youtube)

Following the 1978-79 season, Quebec was absorbed into the NHL as part of a merger between the two professional leagues. As a result of the 1979 Expansion Draft, however, the Nordiques became bottom-dwellers for the next couple of seasons.

Despite their struggles on the ice, the Nordiques rarely suffered from a lack of fan support. Throughout their NHL existence, the then-15,750-seat Colisee de Quebec was at-or-near capacity for almost every home game.

Le Colisee usually drew big crowds for the Nordiques (Photo courtesy:

Other economic factors were rearing their ugly heads, however.

During the early-to-mid 1990s, all eight of the NHL's Canadian teams were affected by the economy in some way. While revenues for those franchises were calculated in Canadian dollars, players' salaries were paid in American money. At the time, the Canadian dollar lagged far behind the U.S. dollar, placing the Nordiques and others at an automatic disadvantage.

Star players like Joe Sakic were expensive for the Nordiques (Photo courtesy:

The Nordiques' surroundings also seemingly hindered their survival. At the time, Quebec City represented the smallest market in the NHL, and the 2nd-smallest market among North America's major professional sports teams (the NFL's Green Bay Packers were/are #1).

In addition, Quebec City is an almost exclusively French-speaking area, so that proved intimidating to some English-speaking fans, advertisers, media -- and even some free agent players -- from outside the region.

The Nordiques' location played a role in their financial difficulties

Eventually, the red ink that accompanied the Nordiques' annual bottom line was too much for team owner and president Marcel Aubut to handle.

May 16th, 1995 marked the last game in Quebec Nordiques' history, a 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers that eliminated them from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That summer, the igloo/hockey stick logo and fleur-de-lis insignias were packed away for good, as the franchise was sold and relocated to Denver, where they became the Colorado Avalanche.

1994-95 was the last season in Nordiques' history (Photo courtesy:

Since then, the Avalanche have captured two Stanley Cups and turned the Denver area into a hockey hotbed. Meanwhile, Quebec City has been left in the National Hockey League's wake -- and residents now wonder if they'll ever again have an opportunity to call a franchise their own.

In August 2010, a grassroots effort began to take shape at the suggestion of two Quebec City radio hosts -- with the intent of bringing the NHL back to their town. It would be called "Nordiques Nation."

A fan-based movement to bring the NHL back to Quebec

The movement started quietly, with local fans signing up and obtaining t-shirts bearing the group's name. It wasn't until Nordiques Nation started taking their show on the road that they received national -- and international -- attention.

During the last two seasons, the group has traveled to Long Island, New Jersey and nearby Montreal to get the word out about their cause. This time, it was on to Ottawa.

A clear day in Ottawa for Hockey Day in Canada

It was Hockey Day in Canada -- February 11th, 2012. With the Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers facing off in a nationally-televised afternoon contest, Nordiques Nation saw a golden opportunity to be seen -- and heard -- in the nation's capital.

They traveled by the busload -- literally. In addition to those who made the roughly 5-hour drive from Quebec City to Ottawa, 22 buses carrying over 1,200 Nordiques' fans ventured to Scotiabank Place.

Buses filled with Nordiques' fans made the trip

It was a frozen, but sunny afternoon as I arrived in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata. Although I was there almost an hour-and-a-half before gametime, the excitement for my first hockey game outside the United States couldn't be contained.

Under the clear blue sky outside Scotiabank Place, I had my first of what-would-become numerous encounters with Nordiques Nation. Dressed in powder-blue or royal-blue, many proudly displayed signs with the Nordiques' logo for those entering the arena. Meanwhile, one man alternated between speaking and shouting in French through a small bullhorn, like it was a political rally.

Part of the demonstration outside the arena

Inside the arena, it was much more serene as I wandered the concourse, absorbing the hockey history that Ottawa had to offer. With photos, murals and memorabilia displays, the original and current incarnations of the Senators were well-represented.

Nordiques' fans remained intent on getting out their message to anyone who would listen. One man wearing a light-blue-and white wig held a "Coyotes Belong in Canada" sign, referring to the struggling Phoenix Coyotes' franchise that relocated from Winnipeg one year after the Nordiques departed Quebec.

The struggling Phoenix Coyotes are on Quebec's wish list

During warmups, the blue-clad Nation quietly filed into the seating bowl, occupying a decent swath of Scotiabank Place's 300-level. It was such a stark contrast to the red-and-black worn by Sens' fans that you couldn't help but notice the difference.

Nordiques Nation starts to fill parts of the upper seating bowl

Ottawa entered the game in the midst of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. With a record of 28-22-7, the Senators sat in 7th place in the East with 63 points. They were experiencing somewhat of a freefall in recent weeks, however, having lost 7 of their previous 8 games.

Edmonton, on the other hand, had been thrust into the "spoiler" role in the Western Conference, entering the game with a 21-28-5 mark. Their 47 points were good for 14th place in the West, 13 points behind 8th-place Phoenix.

As the game between the Senators and Oilers got under way, a sold-out crowd of 20,085 focused their attention on the rink.

Opening faceoff between the Senators and Oilers

Ironically, it was the contingent of Nordiques' fans who led chants of "Go Sens Go!" that echoed throughout Scotiabank Place. Those who traveled from Quebec to Ontario had come in peace, and were cheering for the home team.

When the clock ticked toward 16 minutes, however, it became Nordiques Nation's time to shine.

Nordiques' fans eagerly anticipated the 16-minute mark of the period

With 16:10 remaining in the 1st period, those wearing blue started to count down in French -- "Dix, neuf, huit, sept, six..." Those unfamiliar with the movement started looking around the arena in confusion. Meanwhile, the countdown continued -- "cing, quatre, trois, deux, un..."

Suddenly, Nordiques Nation leapt to its feet, cheering and screaming at the top of their collective lungs, waving the rally towels that were provided to all fans in attendance. For 16 years, Quebec City has been without a hockey team -- thus the symbolism of making noise at the 16-minute mark.

Those in the stands alternated glances between the game and the protest. Those on the ice surface, in uniform, would later admit that they wondered what was going on. For one minute straight, Nordiques Nation would stand and cheer -- their version of civil disobedience.

Nordiques Nation makes its collective voice heard

They would soon be joined by the cheers of Senators' fans, however, as captain Daniel Alfredsson scored his 19th goal of the season with 15:24 remaining in the 1st period. As the goal horn sounded, nearly all of the 20,000+ in the building were yelling and waving their towels. It was one beautiful and loud ovation, but for two completely different reasons.

Sens' fans had reason to cheer after Daniel Alfredsson's power play goal

As the hockey game resumed, the normal pattern of cheering took place. "Go Sens Go!" chants were followed by the occasional (and much quieter) "Let's Go Oilers!" chant from those wearing blue-and-orange.

Ottawa, wearing their black, red and cream-colored "heritage" alternate jerseys, carried the 1-0 lead into the 1st intermission. It was an exciting opening stanza with wide-open play and numerous scoring chances.

Senators' forward Bobby Butler puts a shot on net

That quick pace would continue into the 2nd period. Oilers' goalie Nikolai Khabibulin kept the Senators from extending their lead, while Ottawa netminder Craig Anderson maintained the goose egg that adorned Edmonton's scoresheet.

Nikolai Khabibulin denies Nick Foligno's backhand attempt

Once again, as the 16-minute mark approached, Nordiques Nation prepared for another prolonged vocal performance. In addition to the cheers, many dressed in blue held up signs to further illustrate their point. A few were directed toward NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman -- "Do You Hear Us, Gary?" was the most notable.

Nordiques Nation stands and cheers in the 2nd period

Elsewhere throughout the arena, signs saying "Bring Back the Nordiques," "16 Years," and "Hockey Day in Canada 2013 -- Senators vs. Nordiques" displayed the passion that provoked this road trip to Ottawa.

This Nordiques' fan has already made plans for next year

The Senators maintained their 1-0 lead through most of the 2nd period. With 5:55 remaining in the frame, Edmonton ended the shutout bid. Magnus Paajarvi tallied his 1st goal of the season, pouncing on a loose rebound in the slot and firing the puck past Anderson. For the first time in the afternoon, Oilers' fans had reason to give a hearty cheer.

The Oilers' bench celebrates as Magnus Paajarvi ties the game

Their celebration would not last long, however. A little over two minutes after Paajarvi's goal, left wing Milan Michalek converted a breakaway attempt by stuffing a backhand shot through Khabibulin's legs and into the net. It was Michalek's 24th goal of the season, and Scotiabank Place erupted as the goal horn sounded to give Ottawa a 2-1 lead.

Both Milan Michalek and the puck ended up in the net on this Senators goal

The Oilers would show their resiliency yet again. With 1:08 left in the 2nd period, left wing Ben Eager found some space in the offensive zone and wristed a shot beyond Anderson's reach to make it a 2-2 game.

Ben Eager's late-2nd period goal tied the game at 2

While those wearing blue-and-orange cheered, the rest of Scotiabank Place sat quietly. Staying true to their word of rooting only for the home team, Nordiques Nation did not join in the scattered chants of "Let's Go Oilers!" as the final seconds of the 2nd period ticked away.

Edmonton would carry the momentum of that late goal into the 3rd period. Before many had a chance to return to their seats, Oilers' captain Shawn Horcoff took a slot pass from Ales Hemsky and shot the puck over Anderson's right shoulder to give his team a 3-2 lead.

Shawn Horcoff's goal gave the Oilers their first lead of the game

Senators' fans grew quiet and nervous. After dropping 7 of their last 8 games, Ottawa's playoff position was becoming precarious. Losing to a team with a worse record would only further ratchet up the pressure.

While Sens' fans were apprehensive, Nordiques' fans remained boisterous. They once again cheered at the 16-minute mark of the 3rd period, and followed that with repeated chants of "Nor-diques Na-tion!"

Nordiques Nation stretched across much of the 300-level at Scotiabank Place

Midway through the period, Ottawa brought the mostly-hometown crowd to its feet. Defenseman Erik Karlsson's wrist shot eluded Khabibulin and found the back of the net. Senators' and Nordiques' fans stood and cheered in unison, waving towels and flags as the goal horn blasted to indicate a 3-3 tie.

Senators' and Nordiques' fans cheer Erik Karlsson's game-tying goal

With each passing minute toward the end of regulation, Scotiabank Place buzzed with additional excitement. Senators, Oilers and Nordiques fans alike cheered the back-and-forth play, as Ottawa and Edmonton each approached 40 shots on goal for the contest.

When the scoreboard clock reached :00.0, the game was still tied 3-3. It would require overtime -- and possibly even a shootout -- to determine the winner.

Senators and Oilers are headed to overtime

As I continued to watch from Section 314, the five-minute overtime period got under way. The Oilers won the faceoff, and former 1st overall draft pick Taylor Hall had the puck in his possession. Hall crossed the blue line, and the left-handed shooter flicked the puck toward Anderson from the right faceoff circle.

The Ottawa goalie made the initial save, but had trouble controlling the rebound. Hall suddenly swooped in from behind the net and backhanded the puck into the goal! It took just 17 seconds of overtime for the Oilers to emerge victorious, 4-3.

The Oilers celebrate at center ice after the OT victory

As Senators' fans slumped in their seats, the Edmonton players stormed off the bench to congratulate each other near center ice. A hard-fought game went in their favor, providing numerous highlights to what has -- so far -- been an otherwise disappointing 2011-12 season.

Nordiques Nation, meanwhile, left a lasting impression on Hockey Day in Canada. Although it has been over 16 years since their franchise last set foot on NHL ice, the passion of Quebec Nordiques' fans remains evident.

This fan says he's been on all four Nordiques Nation road trips

No one knows when -- or if -- Quebec City will have a team to call its own once again. Many of the obstacles that led to the Nordiques' departure are still there. But those wishing for a second chance remain hopeful that a stronger Canadian dollar, a dedicated fan base, a league-wide salary cap and the promise of a new arena would prove too enticing for the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman to resist.

Until then, Nordiques Nation will continue to wander North America, visiting arenas and cheering on teams that don't belong to them. Maybe someday, all of this travel will result in the ultimate payoff -- a NHL team back in the city they so dearly love.

Gardez la foi, Nordiques Nation.

Keep the faith, Nordiques Nation


  1. Nice article Dave, we keep the faith indeed.

    Quebec City

  2. Nice article Dave, we keep the faith indeed.

    Quebec City