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Original Issue

Change for the Better

Suddenly the Quebec Nordiques are a match for mighty Montreal

You suddenly wanted to be a Quebec Nordique. With the wind whipping along St. Catherine's Street late last Saturday night and the snow falling in heavy swirls, you wanted to wrap the belt around your all-wool overcoat and step outside the Montreal Forum and walk through the Blizzard of '93 like a newly installed prince, if not a king. You wanted to walk through the snow and feel good, just happy to be a Nordique.

"How'd you do?" someone would ask.

"Won 5-2," you would reply.

How about that? Won 5-2. Beat the first-place Montreal Canadiens in their hallowed Forum. And now you wanted to say the words in French, to know the language. (What's the word for win? Gagner?) You wanted to be part of this surging rivalry. What could be better than beating the Canadiens in the Forum if you were a Quebec Nordique? Suddenly your team was four points out of first place in the Adams Division. Four points. The Canadiens had the most points in hockey. You were four points away.

"When we're working on all cylinders, we can beat anybody," Nordique right wing Owen Nolan said after Saturday night's triumph. "Our problem is that we don't work on all cylinders all the time. There are games we lose, we just come out flat from the beginning. Tonight, though, we had all cylinders. The third period, that's the best we can play."

How does that feel, to be working on all cylinders at last? For the past five years to be a Nordique was to be a disgrace. To wear the uniform with the little Pac-man Nordique logo on the front and the fleur-de-lis on the shoulders was to be a loser, often the biggest loser in the NHL. Five years without making the playoffs. How can that happen when just about every team in the league makes the playoffs?

But Saturday night in Montreal you wanted to be a Nordique so you could tell everyone about the difference this year. How much have the Nordiques changed? First of all, this is the youngest team in the NHL. What's more, they have nine new players. How often does a team start to win, just like that, with nine new players on a roster of 20? You wanted to talk about how these Nordiques have been different from the beginning of training camp, from the day in September when coach Pierre Pagè took the whole team away for five days to the little town of Clermont in the Charlevoix region of Quebec, mostly so that friendships could be made in isolation, away from the distractions of the city, where everyone would be heading in his own direction.

On Saturday night in Montreal you wanted to talk about the impact of the Eric Lindros business. Remember that comic opera of a year ago when the Nordiques owned the rights to that superstar of the future and that superstar of the future thumbed his nose at Quebec? Well, how does Lindros feel now, after being dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers in the off-season for six players and two future draft picks? What do the people of Quebec City think of that deal now? Lindros might be happy with the Flyers, but aren't the Nordiques 10 times happier on the other side of the trade?

Pagè, who is also the Quebec general manager, did a masterly job of dealing Lindros. He waited and waited, held his ground until the last possible moment. He juggled a bidding war as surely as if he were standing on an auction block. Ten different teams offered various alluring packages for Lindros. Pagè waited. The deal that was made with the Flyers filled out his roster in a hurry.

"We were looking for players who would not only help us to be good now but to be good five years and 10 years from now," Pagè says. "We wanted an experienced goalie. We wanted a quarterback for our power play. We wanted some young prospects. And we also wanted some leadership, some character for the locker room. You look now, and that was what we received."

The goalie who arrived was six-year veteran Ron Hextall, who was unable to play in the Montreal game on Saturday because of injury but who has been steady for most of the season. A leader. Another leader who came in the deal was center Mike Ricci, who can also score. Defense-men Steve Duchesne and Kerry Huffman have provided power-play help. Winger Chris Simon, 21, is the future help that Pagè sought. Also in the package were the rights to 19-year-old center Peter Forsberg, a spectacular player in Sweden, available for next year when his contract with the MoDo Elite team expires. Also included were the Flyers' first-round draft choices for the next two years. Also, $15 million.

"You know how the fans in Quebec have yelled at Lindros every time he has gone there to play?" a Quebec sportswriter says. "Now there is a move to have an Eric Lindros Appreciation Day when he comes to Quebec for the final time this season. To cheer for him for what he did for the Nordiques. Put up signs saying MERCI, ERIC, things like that."

On Saturday night in Montreal you wanted to be a part of all that. Merci, Eric. There has been so much about this franchise that has been negative. The Lindros business. The losing. The constant specter of Montreal. The Canadiens are a team wrapped in the grandest winning tradition in sport, massaged and scrutinized by the local press as no other team in North America is, treated by the French-speaking inhabitants of the province of Quebec almost as the mother church of a state religion. How can anybody compete with that? The Nordiques are going to be the country mice to the city mice, the poor relations, the Quebec City wannabes until they win something of their own. Even then it might not matter.

"Coaching the Montreal Canadiens is like managing the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Dodgers," Montreal coach Jacques Demers said last week, returning to the bench after missing two games because of chest pains that were caused by stress. "I was in the hospital and I felt like the pope. Everybody called. Politicians. Entertainment people. Fans."

But now you wanted to tell everyone that the Canadiens aren't much different from the Nordiques. Maurice Richard doesn't play anymore. Or Jean Beliveau. Or Guy Lafleur. Montreal is another young team that has surprised people this year. True, the Canadiens had a solid regular season a year ago, but after they were bounced from the playoffs in four straight games by the Boston Bruins in the Adams Division finals, Montreal general manager Serge Savard promised extensive changes. The changes were made. He went mostly for scoring help, picking up forwards Brian Bellows, Vincent Damphousse and Gary Leeman. The change to Demers from last year's coach, Pat Burns, who had resigned in May, also has been a change to offense.

"A year ago we had an awful time coming from behind," says Kirk Muller, the Canadiens' second-leading scorer. "We'd be all right if we jumped out fast, but when we fell behind, we had all kinds of trouble. This year I think we're still following the defensive discipline of Pat Burns, but we've also opened up under Jacques Demers. Especially the defensemen. We can put on some pressure."

Isn't that the way the Nordiques play? Aren't they another offensive show? Wasn't that the way they played Saturday night? Wasn't that the way they beat the Canadiens? If Quebec could take the third period of that game and play the same way for the rest of the year, what would the rest of the year be like? Four goals. None against. Flying.

The most encouraging performance in the game belonged to the Nordiques' Valeri Kamensky, a 26-year-old winger from Russia. What about this guy? For two years he has been mostly a rumor. He joined the team last year, billed as the Wayne Gretzky of Europe, and almost immediately broke his left leg. He came back this year and broke the ankle on his other leg. Back for about a month, he scored two goals against the Canadiens on Saturday. Both came on breakaways. Both followed moves in which he waited, waited, waited some more until Montreal goalie Patrick Roy finally reacted. Then Kamensky finally shot. Both goals were spectacular.

"He's as new to me as he is to everyone else," Pagè says. "But he's the guy who can be our Michael Jordan, our Elvis Presley. Our showstopper."

A showstopper who first appears in the final quarter of the season? A win over the Canadiens in Montreal in a big game? You look at the Nordiques and they remind you of the pulsating blotch of color on the TV weather map that indicated the Blizzard of '93, when the man with the pointer showed the storm's possible path of destruction. Who wants to play Quebec now? Pagè says that youth can beat experience and that the Dallas Cowboys proved that in the Super Bowl. He has more youth on his side than anyone else.

"People keep asking me if we're going to make some changes for the stretch run," Pagè says. "I say, 'Jeez, we have nine new people already this year. Isn't that enough changes already?' "

The stretch run? The Nordiques? You wanted to walk through the Montreal snow on the night of the Blizzard of '93 and think about stretch runs and being four points away from the best mark in hockey. You wanted to be a Nordique.



Muller was stopped by Stèphane Fiset in Quebec's win at the Forum.



In Montreal, Andrei Kovalenko (51) and the Nordiques proved their new provincial power.