The best part is that it brought the Quebec Nordiques into the NHL and into provincial competition with the Montreal Canadiens.
None of what followed has been an accident. This is a rivalry that had been waiting to happen since the invention of hockey. Maybe since the invention of skates.
"This rivalry gets everybody involved," said sportswriter Red Fisher, who covers the Canadiens for the Montreal Gazette.
It involves the longtime inferiority complex that the people of Quebec City have vis-a-vis Montreal.
It involves the fiercest non-hockey competition in Canada - the competition among the country's top brewers. Molson owns the Canadiens; O'Keefe owns the Nordiques.
It involves the guys with the brooms as well as those with the breweries.
Bob Berry, who coached the Canadiens from 1981 to 1984, said, "A friend of mine works in a plant in Montreal. He says that when Montreal loses to Quebec, the workload of the guys sweeping the floor goes down 60 percent, they're so upset. They curse and swear."
It involves the French-Canadians, who are as passionate as any earthlings. Any Quebec resident will tell you that pitting Nordiques fans against Canadiens fans - French-Canadians against French-Canadians - doubles the height of the emotional tide.
And the rivalry involves professional hockey, which a recent survey said was followed by three of every four people in Quebec.
"There's no doubt that hockey is a religion in Quebec more than anywhere else in North America," said Canadiens coach Jean Perron. "Priests in Quebec will use hockey in their sermons to illustrate their points."
So this isn't just a war. It's a religious war, and forgiveness is rare. When Jacques Lemaire was the Montreal coach, he said of Quebec City, "I hate it so much I wish they would take all the air out of it."
"It's not a love-hate relationship," Fisher said. "It's strictly a hate relationship among all these people involved."
If hockey is a religion here, then it's either a symptom or a contradiction that the crowd at the Montreal Forum is usually tabernacle-quiet.
But not for the Nordiques' visit Wednesday night.
The noise started an hour before the game, when singing busloads of Nordiques fans disembarked outside the Forum after the 160-mile ride from Quebec City.
When the Nordiques took a 1-0 lead, a couple hundred fans cheered. When they went up 2-1, even more hollered.
But when the Canadiens, down 3-1 entering the third period, scored to make it 3-2, the crowd started chanting "Let's go, Habs."
And when the Canadiens tied it with 7 minutes, 34 seconds left and went ahead with 2:41 to go, the Forum was rocked by the two loudest ovations of the season.
As the Nordiques tried to tie it in the last two minutes, the fans started a chorus that is more often associated with beer-lubricated throats in Chicago bleachers, not with suave Montreal. They serenaded the Nordiques with "na- na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey-heeeey, good-bye."
As the Canadiens scored an empty-net goal at the buzzer for a 5-3 victory, Montreal defenseman Larry Robinson held his stick aloft at the blue line for several seconds. His teammates mobbed each other at center ice and inside the blue line. The fans sounded as if the Russians, the Edmonton Oilers and Canada's economic problems all had been licked in one night.
Shortly after the game, Quebec coach Michel Bergeron fulminated in French to the press for 10 minutes. Then, his anger melting very slowly, he fulminated in French to club officials for 10 more minutes.
On the other side of the locker room, goalie Mario Gosselin looked to the ceiling and said, "God, why us?"
Forward Peter Stastny appeared grimmer than if he had just learned he had to return to Czechoslovakia. He told a few friends, "I have nothing to say about that game."
Almost a half-hour after the game, when most of his teammates were dressed and on the bus, defenseman Pat Price bellowed in the shower room, "We had that game! But four minutes to go and we take a penalty! If we'd been smart, they wouldn't have had a chance!"
Usually, even in the NHL playoffs, the loser's locker room is a quiet mix of humility and an acknowledgement that "we've got to work harder." But that atmosphere seems impossible when the Nordiques or Canadiens lose to each other, especially since a new element has been added to their fight, an element that would be the prime cause of many lesser rivalries.
"It means a lot more when first place is on the line," said Quebec forward Dale Hunter.
Wednesday's contest marked the fourth straight Canadiens-Nordiques game in which the Adams Division lead was at stake. The first three were decided by one goal, and Wednesday's game would have been until the last-second empty- netter. The Nordiques lead the season series, 4-2.
"The breweries have carried the red flags in this," said Fisher, who has covered the Canadiens for 32 years. "They're unbelievably competitive. I wouldn't be surprised to someday see the president of Molson and the president of O'Keefe with drawn bottlecaps on the Plains of Abraham.
"Between the breweries and the club presidents, the feeling of the rivalry spreads throughout the organizations."
"If we lose to Montreal, everyone around our offices is down for a couple of days," said Bernard Brisset, the Nordiques' director of communications.
But as a brewery battle, the Canadiens versus the Nordiques is more a matter of pride than profits. It's hard to find any evidence that Molson and O'Keefe sales are related to who wins the hockey games.
"Not in our experience," said Jacques Petel, the manager of Brasserie Bonaventure LTEE, a Montreal drinking establishment. "People are either Molson drinkers, O'Keefe drinkers or Labatts (the third big brewery) drinkers. There's no change the day after a game between Montreal and Quebec City."
While the two hockey organizations are imbued with brewery competition, the fans are inspired by their emotional heritage and by the difference between the cities.
Before the current us-against-us in Quebec hockey, it was us-against- Canada. As the nation's only French-speaking province, Quebec fostered an
insularity that was well-represented by the Montreal Canadiens.
Until 1979, they were really the Quebec Canadiens, gods throughout the province. The rest of the league called them "The Flying Frenchmen," no matter how many players wearing Montreal sweaters came from Ontario and Saskatchewan.
Sure, Montreal is bilingual, English and French. But Canadiens radio and television announcer Dick Irvin - a man who makes his living speaking English in Montreal - says, "Montreal is one of the greatest cities in the world, and the reason is the French flavor to it."
Montreal is by far the biggest and most important city in Quebec, with more than one million people in the area. To the northeast, 160 miles down the St. Lawrence River, sits Quebec City, an unglamorous, civil-service type of town with about half the population of Montreal and with no direct daily flights to the United States.
"Montreal has always been the city, and Quebec City the village," said the Nordiques' Brisset. "Quebec City has always had a relationship of frustration with Montreal.
"This rivalry is the first time that Montreal and Quebec City can compete head to head in one event."
That's why Dale Hunter's deed in April 1982 was so important. In the first couple of years after the merger, the Canadiens and Nordiques were in different divisions and played just four times a year under the balanced schedule. On their first visit to the Forum, the Nordiques were welcomed with polite applause.
Before the 1981-82 season, the NHL realigned its divisions according to geography. It also adopted an unbalanced schedule that stressed divisional play. Ever since, the Nordiques and Canadiens have met each other eight times a year.
In 1981-82, the Canadiens won the Adams Division with 109 points. The Nordiques finished fourth with a .500 record and 82 points, and the two met in the playoffs for the first time.
Surprisingly, Quebec won two of the first four games. More surprisingly, Quebec forced the decisive fifth game at Montreal into overtime. In a shock that made the quaint 14-inch-wide seats at the Forum feel like electric chairs, Hunter scored in the first minute of overtime to eliminate the Canadiens.
That was the ripening of the rivalry. For the first time, the Nordiques - that nice little WHA team from down the river - were better than the regal Canadiens. From now on, the Canadiens would have to work to be the best team in a province they once monopolized, and their fans would have to turn all their passion against the Nordiques.
The Canadiens replied with a playoff upset in 1984. They had 19 fewer points than the Nordiques that regular season, but defeated them, four games to two, in the second round.
Brisset, then a Montreal reporter covering the Canadiens, said, "What amazed me that night Montreal eliminated Quebec were the celebrations in the Montreal streets - people blowing horns, dancing on cars, singing at 3 in the morning. I hadn't seen that even when the Canadiens had won the Stanley Cup."
Last spring, the Canadiens and Nordiques met in the playoffs for the third time, in the best-of-seven Adams Division final. The Nordiques won as they had in 1982, taking the series to the limit and winning on an overtime goal in Montreal.
When the Nordiques returned home and took the ice to face the Flyers in the next round, the public address announcer at Le Colisee summed up the madness. He didn't say, "Let's welcome our Adams Division champions." He said, ''Let's welcome our champions of Quebec!"
Dick Irvin has some of the richest hockey blood in Montreal. His father, also named Dick Irvin, coached the Canadiens from 1940 to 1955. The younger Irvin has broadcast Canadiens games even longer than his dad coached them.
"On the ice, the Canadiens have had rivalries as good as this one," Irvin said. "There was the one with Detroit in the '50s, then with Toronto in the '60s. The Canadiens have always had good games with Boston.
"What sets this rivalry with Quebec apart is the circus that goes on around it. That's mainly because of the media, the French-language media.
"This year, we went to Quebec for the first time in October," Irvin said. ''The World Series had just ended. The hockey season had barely begun. But I think there were six full pages in one Quebec City paper on the game, and it hadn't even been played yet."
Irvin is concerned that the circus detracts from the hockey. In other places, the quality of the games can be the cause of a rivalry. Here, mediocre hockey may be an effect caused by the rivarly between the breweries and the cities.
"The last two years in the playoffs, the series between these two were missing something," Irvin said. "If that had been the Washington Capitals playing a series like that against the Canadiens or Nordiques, you'd have heard a lot of people beefing. I think the brand of hockey tends to get forgotten."
When the Canadiens play the Nordiques, some of the players get too emotional and take bad penalties. Others are too cautious. It sounds like the same over-hype syndrome that has often afflicted the Super Bowl.
"Guys who grew up in Quebec, especially, have trouble dealing with the
emotions involved," said Perron, the Canadiens coach. "When I talk to the team before a Nordiques game, I don't discuss emotion, just what basics we have to do. It's a tough job to make sure the players play against Quebec with intensity while keeping their poise."
But at least most of the Canadiens-Nordiques games are close. No one is heard to say that the rivalry is a bad thing. When the Canadiens play the Nordiques on a weeknight, the television audience throughout Quebec is as much as 50 percent higher than for a normal Canadiens midweek telecast.
As long as the Nordiques and Canadiens have games scheduled with each other, hockey fans in Quebec will not be asked "What's life without a little passion?"