For the past half century, every French Canadian child was a fan of the Montreal Canadiens. The Engligh Canadians may have dominated the country's economic and political life but on Saturday nights the "Flying Frenchmen" whomped the Toronto Maple leafs in Canada's number one sport -- hockey.

What Quebec youngster could keep from cheering for the team that carried off the Stanley Cup 21 times and had only a few losing National Hockey League seasons? What better symbol of French prowess than a slam-bang game like top-level hockey?

Canadien players in turn developed a unique team spirit. As the idols of Quebec, they seemed to be especially conscious of their responsibility to represent the French minority with courage and grace.

Now, the undisputed loyalty the Canadiens had commanded here is gravely threatened by another Quebec team, the Nordiques of Quebec City, who joined the NHL a month ago.

MONTREAL AND ALL of Quebec still adore the Canadiens with their romantic aura. But in their first NHL encounter, the Nordiques recently made a spectacular showing to defeat the Canadiens, 5-4, with virtually the entire province watching on television.

"Quebec is torn," read the front-page headline in the Quebec City newspaper Le Soleil. On one side was the new logo of the Nordiques, blue with fleur-de-lis. On the other was the old symbol of the Canadien Hockey Club, the big red C with a smaller H set inside it.

The nordique logo, by coincidence or not, is the symbol of Quebec nationalism that has been appropriated by supporters of the separatist movement who want to take Quebec out of Canada and set it up as a separate state.

THERE ARE OTHER confusions. Quebec City residents, for example, used to cheer for Guy Lafleur, who started his career there before moving to Montreal. They contunued to cheer for him until this fall. But now it is either Lafleur or the Nordiques' Real Cloutier.

Newspapers here are predicting an identity crisis for the children who reaches the age of 6 this fall, a kind of war in each little breast, torn between allegiance to the two Quebec teams.

"Before it was so simple," wrote Florent Plante. "Everything converged on (Montreal's) St. Catherine Street," the home ground of the Canadiens.

"But for the past month, the hockey team which has its headquarters in (Quebec City's) Limoilou is unsettling the feeling of belonging, even manages to draw the sympahty which is accorded to a newborn baby."

Perhaps the new divisiveness merely reflects the growing complexity of life here.The Canadiens for long have been associated not only with the best expression of hockey in North America but also with a different type of Quebec nationalism. They still skate like the wind and score with a spectacular combination of dashing individual efforts and subtle collective maneuver.