Note: This article was in the works for almost a year in several different incarnations, and I’d be crazy not to mention and thank Matt Ackerman, who provided insight and feedback, and also shelved his own similar article once I told him I was doing this.
In 1995, the Quebec Nordiques accepted a proposal from the COMSAT Entertainment Group to move the team to Denver, Colorado. It was words that came from the mouth of Marcel Aubut, the man that would forever be known as the one to give away what was so much more to many people. After 23 years, in the defunct WHA and the NHL, the Nordiques were no more.
The story has been told countless times. Hell, it was even on the Simpsons a few years ago.
24 years later, while their successor the Colorado Avalanche have added 2 Cups to their name, the Nordiques have grown in legend. Hockey stores sell countless jerseys, t-shirts and caps, all with the once-beloved igloo. NHL 20 players will, with delight, choose the famed powder blue uniforms when playing as the current day Avalanche.
But what if things hadn’t gone that way? What if someone stepped in?
To change that, what would need to change?
Let’s start at the beginning: the Canadian dollar was falling. Quebec City was the smallest market in the NHL, and only second-smallest in the big four sports to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Unlike Green Bay with the nearby Milwaukee, the Nordiques didn’t have a larger market to share revenue with. Then there was the language barrier — while the bilingual Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators enjoyed large Francophone fanbases, the Nordiques were effectively a Francophone-only team, with very little English media in the city. The Quebec sovereignty movement and the upcoming 1995 referendum wouldn’t help matters.
And then there was the aging Colisee, which the Nordiques could barely afford to replace. There was a lot at hand.
These would certainly be impossible to change, leaving the only way to keep them in the Quebec capital would be a similar situation to the Edmonton Oilers in 1998, who were sold to the Edmonton Investors Group hours before a sale to move to Houston would have been final. Comprised of 38 local investors, Quebec would need a similar group to this to buy the team at the last second. Let’s call them Le Groupe D’investisseurs du Québec.
With all this in play, we go back to June 1995 in Quebec City, a month after the Nordiques were eliminated by the New York Rangers from the 1995 playoffs. An offer is on the table to relocate the team to Denver.
The Nordiques had recieved interest a year prior — from Peter Karamnos, who intended to see the team move to Phoenix, Arizona. But it was this offer, from COMSAT, that seemed to seal the fate of the Nordiques.
That was until the temporary ownership group Le Groupe D’investisseurs du Québec (LDQ), comprised of 37 local investors, managed to purchase the team from Aubut at the eleventh hour, as well as sign a lease with the Colisee to keep the Nordiques in Quebec until at least 1998. The team had bought themselves a few years, and with the Canadian dollar still far below its American counterpart, it might have been all the time left. But for the time being, the Nordiques were saved.
The team got to work improving their roster during the offseason, as Wendel Clark would head to the Islanders, in a three-way-deal which saw Claude Lemieux headed to Quebec. The Nordiques struggled early in the season, woes which would be solved by sending winger Owen Nolan to the Sharks for defender Sandis Ozolinsh.
As the season went on, the Nordiques found themselves neck-to-neck with the Penguins in their division. The trade of an unhappy Patrick Roy to the western Winnipeg Jets, a move which included youngster Nikolai Khabibulin would shock the hockey world, and take a weight off competition, but the Penguins seemed to be ahead, led by a healthy Mario Lemieux and prime Jaromir Jagr. However, as the trade deadline neared, this would change in February.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were two seasons removed from the Conference Finals, and they now saw themselves in a 3-16-3 for most of the last two months. Head coach Pat Burns had been let go, and the team became eager for change. The Nordiques found a keen trading partner in the Leafs, and mere months after the Roy trade, the news broke that Felix Potvin would be returning to his home province, heading to the Nordiques along with Mike Craig, for goaltender Jocelyn Thibault, and forwards Martin Rucinsky and Rene Corbet. The team would clinch not only the Northeast, but the Eastern Conference as well.
The Nordiques found themselves head to head with the Capitals in the first round, led by eventual Vezina winner Jim Carey. However, the Nordiques found a way to work Carey, and would win the series 4-1. Next came the Panthers, only in their third season, in the midst of a Cinderella run. However, Potvin stood strong, and the team would win the series in 6 games. Their last obstacle game in the form of the Penguins, a series which analysts predicted going either way. The Nordiques would take the series to 7, winning the final game at home to face Wayne Gretzky and the St. Louis Blues in their first trip to the finals.
An exciting Game 1 saw Sakic with two goals, while Game 2 was a full-force display of the Nordiques offense, as they would win it 8-1, with Blues goalie Fuhr pulled in the first for Pat Jablonski. The Blues would manage to sneak a win in Game 3, but the Nordiques would win Game 4, and seal the series at home, with Joe Sakic getting the game winner, and earning the Conn Smythe. A year from nearly moving to Denver, the Nordiques had beat the odds. The Quebec Nordiques were Stanley Cup champions.
For the entire Nordiques faithful, it was everything they had dreamed of for years. But for the predominantly Francophone, reeling after the October 1995 referendum to stay a part of Canada, it was a national victory. The Nordiques were theirs, and they were champions.
That summer, the Nordiques got a glimpse of what might have been, as the Jets were purchased by Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, and relocated to Arizona as the Phoenix Coyotes. The Jets were as small a market, albeit larger, than the Nords, and while Quebec was still celebrating their Cup win, the future began to once again look grim. This was distracted, however, by the Nordiques’ overhaul of their logo and jerseys, relatively unchanged for nearly two decades. Gone were the powder blue and red, introduced was a dog baring its teeth, and the in colours of navy and teal. Fans became stunned by the news, and although the jersey proved to be a top seller, fans made it clear they wanted the old ones back.
On the ice, the Nordiques managed to live up to expectations, winning the Presidents Trophy with a whopping 110 points. Peter Forsberg would lead the team with his 108 point season, while Sakic and Potvin continued to be key members. Another playoff run was halted in the Conference Finals — to the Philadelphia Flyers, and the man who refused to play for them years earlier, Eric Lindros. As little did fans know, this would be the first in a series of major blows to the team. It was the next blow, however, that would change the face of the Nordiques.
Sakic was due to become a free agent that summer. At 28, he was one of the league’s premier players, and the face of the Nordiques for nearly a decade. However, the Nordiques’ current financial situation put a halt on plans to retain their captain. The two sides negotiated for a month, until the New York Rangers blindsided the Nordiques — and league — with a three year, $21 million offer sheet, which included a $15 million signing bonus, one the financially ailing Nordiques couldn’t match. The team received five first round picks (1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002) in compensation, but the damage was done.
Fans were devastated. Thousands rioted outside the Colisee, some burning their Sakic jerseys. Nordiques loyalists dubbed their longtime captain “Traitor Joe,” picketing for days with boos and threats. Lacroix’s head was called for as well. Only a year removed from being at the top of the hockey world, this seemed to be the team’s downfall.
The following season proved to not let fans down as much as they would think. New captain Peter Forsberg once again led the team in points, supported by Lemieux and Valeri Kamensky. Of note was Sakic’s return to Quebec, an event which saw fans boo him every time he touched the puck, carrying signs calling him a traitor and “greedy,” with moneybags crudely drawn surrounding their former captain. The team would finish in the middle of their division, but would be eliminated by the Bruins in 5 games.
Meanwhile, the Rangers, led by the likes of Sakic and Gretzky, seemed to be a force on paper. However, an injury to their new prized acquisition in the Nagano Olympics — along with veteran Pat LaFontaine being sidelined — would lead to their late season struggles. They would barely make it into the playoffs in an 8th seed, being eliminated by cross-highway rivals New Jersey in 7. Sakic would prove to live up to his price, putting up 65 points in 62 games, forming a lethal top line with Alexei Kovalev and Adam Graves.
However, the Rangers’ elimination would be good news for the Nordiques, as the Rangers’ 15th overall standing in the draft, coupled with three other first round picks the team owned that year, would be traded a few times, leading to one last trade to land the 1st overall pick, where they would take Vincent Lecavalier to be their new star. The team would follow their pick in the third round with Lecavalier’s linemate, Brad Richards.
One unwilling participant in the Nords’ rise back to contenders would be coach Marc Crawford. Dissatisfied with the first round exit, Crawford turned down a one year extension, deciding to “move on and accept a new challenge.” Brought up from their AHL affiliate in Hershey was Bob Hartley, who had led the Bears to an AHL championship the year prior. As GM Lacroix gushed at the press conference that introduced Hartley, the Nordiques were in “good hands.”
All this would be interrupted by a familiar threat rearing its ugly head again. The LDQ, forced with their deadline, began to look for a buyer. The state of the league would leave this uncertain: the NHL had already seen the Hartford Whalers move to Carolina, and the Edmonton Oilers nearly move to Houston, as well as the recent expansion to Denver and Nashville in 1997 and 1998, as well as Atlanta in 1999. One scenario had the LDQ selling to a Houston group led by Rockets owner Les Alexander. Another had Atlanta’s Ted Turner selling his expansion team to Houston, and purchasing the Nordiques. However, media conglomerate Quebecor would purchase the team, setting to work on a new arena in the next five years.
While the Nords (and Lecavalier) struggled to find their footing early on that season, it was two other rookies who would take the NHL by storm. Chris Drury and Milan Hejduk would lead the Calder race, with Drury proving himself the winner, posting a 25 goal season. Again, however, while the team would improve in the regular season, they would again be gone by the first round, in another 5 game-loss to the Flyers. Needing help on D, the Nordiques selected David Tanabe and Nick Boynton with their 1st round picks that year.
Quebecor began making their influence prominent on the Nordiques. As the 1999-00 season began, a new design, featuring a modernized igloo logo in navy and copper-ish brown was unveiled. The jerseys followed other teams that had unveiled updated and new looks, such as the Islanders and Flames, that had gone back to a more toned down, but still modern look.
The Nordiques would spend the next few seasons in the middle of the league, either sneaking into the playoffs or missing them. 1999-00 saw the beginning of Forsberg’s injury troubles; Lecavalier would manage to pick up the slack with a 75 point season, as well as Drury and Hejduk’s 70 point seasons each. The team would miss the playoffs, finishing 16th in their conference. The team would select goaltender Brent Krahn with their 1st round pick, trading up with the Oilers, and blueliner Brooks Orpik with the Rangers’. Forsberg would outright miss the entire next season recuperating, while the team would manage to be swept by the eventual champion Flyers in the first round. The Nordiques captain would return the next season as a force, however, the rest of the team would fall apart, and the team would once again miss the playoffs, with another 16th place finish.
Going into the 2000-01 season, the NHL would implement the Canadian Assistance Plan, a $10 million to be divided between the smaller market Canadian teams. These seasons would lead management to do what they could to keep the team in the eyes of fans. The team’s first alternate jersey, a black uniform featuring a specially-designed alternate logo, would prove to be a big seller. Moves were made to sign as much Quebec-born free agents as possible to attract fans: these would include Stephane Richer, Patrick Boileau, Marc Bureau, and an undersized former college player named Martin St. Louis.
Attention was focused on these signings, which mostly did little to help the team, and on Potvin, who had begun to struggle after years of being one of the elite goalies in the league. The Nordiques had given up young starter Marc Denis years earlier, and press began to bemoan the Nordiques’ mishandling of goaltenders and favouritism towards Potvin. Veteran Chris Terreri, along with rookie David Aebischer, would sub in between the pipes at certain occasions.
While Potvin, and longtime defenceman Adam Foote, continued to be the focus of speculation, it was sophomore centreman Richards that was being watched, with his 62 points. Elsewhere, the Rangers would make the 2002 Stanley Cup Final, led by Sakic, only to fall to the stacked Red Wings. The Rangers had made the Conference Finals the previous year as well, only to fall to cross river-rival New Jersey, who would fall to the Roy-backstopped Phoenix Coyotes, leading to an iconic moment where Ray Bourque would finally win his first Cup, given to him directly from captain Keith Tkachuk’s hands.
The Nords had taken R.J. Umberger with the Rangers’ pick the year prior, but this year they would be stuck at the 29th pick, taking on János Vas. With their own picks, Chuck Kobasew and Jakub Klepis would be taken in 2001 and 2002 respectively. So far, the only prize from losing Sakic had been Lecavalier, who didn’t come from the deal directly. All this would change.
The Nordiques entered the 2002-03 campaign as they had the last few seasons, a mediocre start with a hopeful second half, followed by disappointment. After an eight game losing streak, Lacroix would sack Hartley, and hire former Nordique Claude Julien from Hamilton in the AHL as his replacement. The hockey media, like they had to the 1999-00 flurry of Francophone signings, would bemoan this move as ownership pandering to fans. Lacroix would defend his choice, praising Julien’s defensive style with the Bulldogs, an area the Nordiques desperately needed help in.
With Julien behind the bench, things would change, as Forsberg would surge to an Art Ross winning season, supported by Milan Hejduk with a Rocket Richard winning 50 goals. Foote would find his game again, along with the sophomore Boynton, no doubt helped by Julien. Stepping up was Martin St. Louis, the FA signing from a few seasons back, who had developed into a formidable winger, earning time on the same line as Forsberg and Hejduk, while Lecavalier and Drury anchored the second line. However, Drury, stuck in a forward logjam with Richards, would end up being traded to Los Angeles in the deadline, in a deal which saw Rob Blake arrive in Quebec. The Nordiques would finish 2nd in the Northeast, and set to face their playoff foe, the Flyers, in round 1.
The Flyers would come off strong in Game 1, but an Adam Deadmarsh overtime goal would tie the series in Game 2. The matchup would go back and forth, going to 7 games, where the Nords would win it with a 5-4 win. Up next was an opponent who had stood in the Nordiques’ way for years: Joe Sakic and the New York Rangers.
The Rangers would start off with a Game 1 victory, as Sakic and Pavel Bure led the charge to a 6-2 win. The Nordiques would get the next two, St. Louis getting 3 point games each. The Rangers would take a 3-2 lead in the series, only for the Nordiques to get Game 6 at the Colisee as Forsberg scored the game winner to send the series to Game 7. At the Madison Square Garden, Hejduk would get the hat trick, and Forsberg 5 points, as the Nordiques would finally get past the move that seemed to doom them, and eliminated Sakic. The Nordiques were headed back to the Conference Finals.
Although the Nordiques had managed to get past two major obstacles, their next opponent, the New Jersey Devils, were a favourite to win the Cup. Although the Nordiques got off to a 2 game lead, they would never recover it, losing the series in 6 games. The Devils would go on to beat the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to win their third Stanley Cup. For the Nordiques, although they wouldn’t go all the way, it was a triumph for them.
That summer, a new arena, the Videotron Centre, would be announced to open in 2008, finally giving the Nordiques the home they needed a decade before. Another triumph would come in the form of the return of the original powder blue jerseys, to be worn as an alternate as part of the NHL’s Heritage program.
8 years after a near move, the Nordiques had a Cup under their belt. They had they state-of-the-art new arena, along with a promising future that, despite drawbacks years earlier losing their marquee player, would find a way to resolve itself. The Canadian Assistance Plan, as well as the team’s sale to Quebecor, gave the team the financial stability it needed. The upcoming 2004-05 lockout would bring in the salary cap, putting Quebec at the same playing field as everyone else. As for hockey in small market Canada, the Atlanta Thrashers would relocate to Winnipeg to become the second incarnation of the Jets.
In the next few seasons, the Nordiques would be forced to give up many of their bigger contracts, being forced to let Forsberg go to free agency (although he returns in 2007), with a younger group coming in. Potvin would leave for Boston in 2005, retiring after the season. Although many of the Nordiques’ picks would prove to bust — Krahn, Klepis, Vas — it would be late round picks like Dennis Wideman, Corey Crawford and Jiri Hudler that would happily take their place. Lacroix, having only seen the fruits of his labour result in the 1996 Cup, would resign as GM while still holding the president role, giving way for Francois Giguere.
So what else changes?
- Denver gets its team through NHL expansion in 1997, the team is still called the Avalanche, but initially struggles, eventually finding its way out of the basement with draft picks Dany Heatley and David Legwand. There’s no decade-long sellout streak: attendance is shaky when the team fails to produce, but interest rises once the team begins to produce. As of 2019, the team is still cupless, albeit with a Finals appearance in 2015.
- The Nordiques staying in Quebec means Sakic’s offer sheet cannot be matched, with no Harrison Ford movie to help cover the cost. With Messier being adequately replaced by Sakic, the Rangers do not miss the playoffs every year from 1997-98 to 2003-04. Instead, the addition of a younger star helps the Rangers qualify all of these seasons, even after Gretzky’s retirement in 1999. After the acquisitions of Lindros, goalie Nikolai Khabibulin in 2003, and Jaromir Jagr later that season, they beat the Calgary Flames in 5 games to win their fifth Stanley Cup in 2004. Sakic would take over the captaincy in 2005, but would leave the Rangers for Red Wings the next year. He would retire in 2009, with his number being lifted to the rafters the following year.
- The perception of Sakic is also changed: he’s no longer the flawless, one-franchise hero, but a hated figure in Quebec, even more so than Lindros. Sakic’s heroics in the 1996 Final, including his Conn Smythe, are forgotten to the younger fans, and it wouldn’t be until the Nordiques’ 30th anniversary celebrations in 2009 that Sakic would slowly be welcomed back by the Nordique faithful.
- Montreal never trades Roy to the rival Nordiques, so they find a partner with Winnipeg. Nikolai Khabibulin, or “Habby” as he becomes known in Montreal, enjoying a lengthy time between the pipes, until a contract dispute leads to a blockbuster trade to the Rangers. As mentioned above, he still gets his 2004 Cup.
- Roy proves to help the Jets make a brief playoff run, and would help the team become a force after the move to Phoenix. In a city where hockey mostly was unfamiliar, Roy gave the team star power, and after a few seasons of second round playoff exits, the Coyotes would find their footing in 2000 when they would acquire legend Ray Bourque, getting him his first Cup the following year. Perception of Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick is changed in this timeline, and while Roenick finishes his career in Philadelphia in 2007, not in search of a Cup, Tkachuk retires with the Coyotes in 2010. Roenick is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame that year, with Tkachuk following him in 2013.
- Potvin’s standing changes as well, with his career trajectory looking similar to Mike Richter or Curtis Joseph. Winning a Cup, as well as Vezina nominations in 1997 and 1998, helps overlook his later career slump, as does his resurgence in the 2003 playoffs. Thibault proves to be a serviceable goalie in Toronto, before being dealt to the Islanders in a package for Bryan Berard in 1998. But the real prize proves to be Rucinsky, who develops into a solid winger with the Leafs with Mats Sundin, being fondly remembered by fans. Instead of a one-sided trade like the Roy trade, the Potvin move is seen more equal.
- Thibault is never traded for Jeff Hackett, meaning Hackett spends the rest of his career on a dismal Blackhawks, never being replaced by Jose Theodore. As well, Thibault takes a similar path to Potvin, being a journeyman like he did after he left Chicago in real life.
- As Denver gets the first expansion spot, Columbus does not receive an expansion team, the other three going to Atlanta, Nashville, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Columbus never builds their NHL arena, and with the competition of minor pro hockey in Cleveland and Cincinnati, remains an ECHL city with the Columbus Chill. Frequently brought up as an NHL relocation spot, businessman John H. McConnell almost buys both the Penguins and Nashville Predators, but both deals fall through, and after McConnell’s death, the dream of an NHL team in Ohio seems less than likely.
- Vincent Lecavalier is not drafted by the Lightning, and the trade the Avalanche tried to make in 1998 actually happens. Although the drafting of Alex Tanguay helps a little, the Lightning lack a real star until Rick Nash in 2002, and do not win the 2004 Stanley Cup. John Tortorella only lasts less than a season as head coach, being fired at the end of the 2001-02 season, and with no Cup win, does not coach in the NHL again.
- The career of Lecavalier is bolstered, as instead of being drafted to a struggling Lightning, finds himself on a team with talent. He is not given the “C” way too early, and with all the pressure on Forsberg, he manages to put up numbers in the 70-point range by the mid-2000s, although he still goes through injuries and a career slump.
- St. Louis still ends up being the surprise player he was, putting up 60-70 points in his prime. The only drawback is the loss of his Hart and Art Ross trophies, and although he still outlives expectations, St. Louis does not finish with the Hall of Fame career he had in our timeline.
- The QMJHL never returns to Quebec in 1997, with the Beauport Harfangs remaining in the Quebec City borough to this day. As well, the IHL Rafales and AHL Citadelles never exist.
Stopping the sale of Quebec to COMSAT leads to a much different decade for the team — and the league. The Oilers are saved by a similar group to the LDQ, as they are in the original timeline, but so are the Sabres and Senators. The prevention of the sale, and the subsequent 1996 Cup win, prove to boost the Quebec City economy, and entice media conglomerate Quebecor to purchase the team.
Of course, the Oilers and Senators managed to get saved in time, and Winnipeg would manage to get their team back, but Quebec would get the short end of the stick at the edge of success. Almost 25 years later, they still wait to see the Nordiques return.