In Quebec, the Green Bay of the National Hockey League, only one item transcends politics. That is the Quebec Nordiques, whose victory over the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs brought far greater joy than any Parti Quebecois success at the polls.
Playing in Le Colisee, with a capacity of 15,238, the Nordiques drew fewer than 15,000 fans only three times this season, despite ticket prices ranging from $17.50 to $11.50 in an area experiencing high unemployment. Quebec has a population of only 200,000; barely 500,000 reside within a 100-mile radius.
In 1972, Clarence Campbell, then president of the NHL, told Quebecers to forget about a berth in his league, with the memorable words: "It is unthinkable to put an NHL team in Quebec City. The area is not rich enough to support a franchise."
Instead, Quebec became a member of the World Hockey Association and several times the Nordiques approached bankruptcy before the 1979 merger gave them a chance to compete with the Canadiens, 150 miles up the St. Lawrence.
The Nordiques have competed well, not only on the ice but also in the marketing department. La Presse, a Montreal newspaper, printed a map a year ago professing to show which areas of the province favored the Nordiques, which the Canadiens. The map contained nothing but the Nordiques' Fleur de Lis, except for one "CH" in Westmount, a Montreal suburb near the Forum.
Montreal defenseman Larry Robinson was startled when a neighbor sought a tidbit of information before he bought his son a hockey jersey: what was Peter Stastny's number?
"We decided to aim not only for Quebec City and the whole province, but for Canada and part of the United States as well," said Jean D. Legault, assistant to President Marcel Aubut for marketing and communications. "At first local enthusiasm is enough, but over a long period of time more extensive support will be needed. Right now we have everything to gain and Montreal has everything to lose."
The Canadiens were aware of their potential losses when they tried to block the merger and keep Quebec out. Eventually, they were forced to change their vote because of beer. The Canadiens are owned by the Molson brewery and boycotts in Quebec, Winnipeg and Edmonton threatened huge corporate losses.
Beer continues to be a key to the Quebec-Montreal rivalry, because the Nordiques are owned by another brewery, O'Keefe, and if only a small percentage of beer drinkers should change brands because of team loyalty, it could make a big difference in the annual stockholders' report.
Quebec fans, like all others, boo the referee, but they rarely reach the level of violent objection found in New York or Chicago. The one thing that can turn a Quebecer into a wild man is a blatant foul committed on a member of the Nordiques.
It has been a tradition of the Nordiques for rugged English-speaking defensemen to protect smaller French forwards. When Washington's Randy Holt created some problems earlier this season, Wally Weir's appearance on a line change brought the loudest roars of the night to the alert fans. When Holt demolished Weir in the fight that followed, it became very quiet.
Although all announcements are made in French and all signs and all program stories are in French, the fans root by their heart, not by nationality. Weir, Dale Hunter and Peter Stastny invariably draw more applause than Real Cloutier, Michel Goulet and Marc Tardif.
Although they are treated well by the fans and the club arranges for French lessons, the language problem can make life difficult for English players here.
John Wensink, since dealt to Colorado, found that his family felt isolated and uncomfortable.
"My son was watching Sesame Street and he told me, 'The bird talks funny,' " Wensink said.
Robbie Ftorek, the Nordiques' longtime captain, and his family adjusted to the new surroundings, but tax problems virtually wiped him out and he was traded to the New York Rangers at his request.
It was to Le Colisee that a worried Robert Picard returned for an exhibition with Washington, after he had signed dual contracts and made the forgettable comment, "I'd rather sell pizza in Quebec than play hockey in Washington."
Instead of responding angrily, the fans took the humorous view. They threw pizzas on the ice.
The Islanders can end the Nordiques' Stanley Cup dream, at least for this year, with a victory here Tuesday night. Quebec's defense is in bad shape, with Normand Rochefort (sprained shoulder) the latest casualty, and to expect the weary Nordiques to overcome a 3-0 deficit to the best team in hockey is asking a genuine miracle.
In Vancouver, the fans will carry their white towels to Pacific Coliseum Tuesday to see whether the Canucks can pad their 2-1 margin over Chicago in the Campbell Conference showdown.