QUEBEC CITY, Canada – When the 2008 IIHF World Championship gold medal is awarded in Quebec City on May 18, it will be the biggest hockey event in civic history. It will cap off the first-ever Worlds held in Canada, mark the high point of the IIHF's 100th-anniversary celebrations, and add sizzle to the commemoration of Quebec City's 400th anniversary, not to mention finalizing the seeding for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
And although the picturesque walled town of 530,000 is renowned for tourist attractions like the Chateau Frontenac hotel, the Plains of Abraham battlefield, and the world's biggest Winter Carnival, its hockey history is equally rich and colourful. Here are seven examples of what made Quebec City great before 2008.
1953: Beliveau the scoring king
Today, an annual salary of C$20,000 sounds awfully low for a superstar NHL prospect. But that's how much Jean Beliveau was earning in the 1950s with the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Senior Hockey League (QSHL), and at the time, it was considered a princely sum. Nicknamed "Le Gros Bill", the stylish 6-foot-3 centre was a huge fan favourite in the provincial capital. In 1953, a year after his club won the league championship, Beliveau captured the scoring title at age 21 with 50 goals and 39 assists in 57 games.
That was the end of his QSHL career. The Montreal Canadiens held Beliveau's NHL rights, and convinced him to make the leap. His legacy in Montreal as the longest-serving captain in franchise history became legendary: 10 Stanley Cups, plus Hart, Art Ross, and Conn Smythe Trophies. But how about in Quebec City? During the 2008 IIHF World Championship, thousands will literally be sitting in it. The 15,000-capacity Colisée Pepsi has been nicknamed "The House that Beliveau Built" since it was originally constructed in 1950 when the budding youngster was his team's star attraction.
1962-64: Lafleur shows pee-wee power
After the retirement of Beliveau, Guy Lafleur would emerge as the next great Montreal Canadiens forward, and in the second half of the 1970's, nobody could touch him in the NHL. However, the blonde right winger first garnered Canada-wide attention when he began playing at the annual Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament. The competition had only been inaugurated in 1960, and Lafleur was just 10 years old when he broke in. The Thurso native terrified opposing netminders at the Colisée with his slapshot, racking up 64 goals over the three years he competed.
1977: Nordiques take WHA crown, rock Russians
In their NHL incarnation, the Quebec Nordiques had to settle for losing in the Wales Conference finals twice (1982, 1985) as their biggest team achievements. But as a member of the World Hockey Association (WHA), they were considerably more impressive. The Nordiques won their only Avco Cup in the first-ever all-Canadian final in WHA history, ousting the Winnipeg Jets with an 8-2 shellacking to climax the seven-game series in Quebec City on May 26, 1977. Right wing Serge Bernier led the charge with 36 playoff points, and was assisted amply by snipers like Real Cloutier, Marc Tardif, and the Bordeleau brothers, Christian and Paulin. Diminutive goalie Richard Brodeur recorded 12 wins en route to the title, presaging his heroics in Vancouver's 1982 run to the Stanley Cup finals.
But the Nordiques also made their presence felt internationally in 1977. They beat the Soviet national team 6-1 on January 8. That was the last encounter in an eight-game WHA tour for Vladislav Tretiak, Valeri Kharlamov, and company, whose only other defeat came against the New England Whalers (5-2 on December 27, 1976). The following December, the Nords represented Canada in the Izvestia tournament in Moscow as the defending Avco Cup champs.
1981: Stastny's Calder trophy campaign
When Peter Stastny defected from the former Czechoslovakia to join the Nordiques in the NHL, he spoke six different languages: Slovak, Czech, English, Russian, German, and French. In short order, the hard-nosed 24-year-old centre proved he was equally fluent at goal-scoring and play-making. Joined by his brother Anton (older brother Marian would follow a year later), Stastny accumulated 39 goals and 70 assists en route to the Calder Trophy. His 109 points would remain the NHL's rookie record until Teemu Selanne's 132-point campaign with Winnipeg in 1992-93. With Quebec, Stastny became the second-leading points-getter in the NHL behind Wayne Gretzky in the 1980's. And he loved playing at the Colisée. "Quebec has become as much of a home to me as Slovakia," Stastny told the New York Times years later.
1982-86: Goulet gets 50, over and over
No current NHL sniper has recorded three consecutive 50-goal seasons, not even whizzes like Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, or Dany Heatley. Nobody has achieved that feat since Brett Hull did it five times in a row (1990-94). So what Michel Goulet accomplished in the mid-1980s with the Nordiques is worth acknowledging. The moustachioed left winger from Peribonka, Quebec, scored 57, 56, 55, and 53 goals between 1981-82 and 1985-86. Goulet modestly said that "it had a lot to do with the people [he] was playing with – Dale Hunter and Peter Stastny and the rest of the team."
1987: Rendez-vous '87 a triumph
While the NHL All-Star Game always brings together some of the planet's top players, the game itself isn't necessarily known for blazing speed or intensity. That changed in 1987. At the prompting of Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut, the league shelved its traditional Campbell-versus-Wales-Conference clash in favor of a different East-West confrontation: the NHL All-Stars versus the Soviet National Team. A cultural festival accompanied Quebec City's Winter Carnival that year, with musical guests ranging from Glass Tiger and Gordon Lightfoot to the Red Army Choir, plus gourmet dinners and parades.
But what happened on the ice was the most memorable. Viewed retrospectively, the hockey was nearly as fast-paced and exciting as the games that would be played during the classic Canada Cup that fall. In the first game, Dave Poulin's goal set up by Mario Lemieux with 1:15 remaining gave the NHLers a 4-3 victory. But the Soviets rallied for a 5-3 win in Game Two, keyed by a three-point performance by an emerging star named Valeri Kamensky. He received a new stereo for his Soviet MVP performance, while Wayne Gretzky took home a shiny Chrysler as NHL MVP. Also on the quirky side, USSR captain Slava Fetisov breached protocol by giving Canadian Governor-General Jeanne Sauve a kiss on the cheek while accepting a team trophy from her afterwards. (Sauve didn't seem to mind, so nobody else did either.)
2006: Remparts roll to Memorial Cup
Recently, Patrick Roy made headlines for the wrong reasons. The legendary NHL goalie and Hockey Hall of Famer now serves as the head coach of the QMJHL's Quebec Remparts, and he was suspended for his failure to control his goaltender-son Jonathan during a brawl with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens. However, nobody in Quebec City was complaining when Roy led the Remparts to their first Memorial Cup in 35 years in 2006, despite the fact that the coach engaged in some trash-talking about opposing netminders. After an opening 3-2 loss to the Peterborough Petes, Quebec registered back-to-back wins over the Vancouver Giants and the host Moncton Wildcats to earn a bye into the final. There, Alexander Radulov's five-point performance paced the Remparts in a 6-2 triumph over the Wildcats, and the gifted Russian sniper was named tournament MVP.