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Canadiens defeat Penguins in Quebec City

by Arpon Basu

QUEBEC CITY -- The Montreal Canadiens played what was supposed to be a home game Monday.

It just didn't feel like one.

Playing the first NHL game at the brand new Videotron Centre, a building the city hopes will be home to its own NHL team one day, the Canadiens hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins in a preseason game in what was once extremely hostile territory.

It's been 20 years since that was the case, when the Quebec Nordiques moved away and became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995-96. An entire generation of people were born and have come of age since then, but that feeling remains.

Quebec City remains hostile territory for the Canadiens.

"It was probably 50/50," said Canadiens center David Desharnais, a native of nearby Laurier-Station, Quebec. "But that's the way it is here."

There were many red Canadiens jerseys among the sellout crowd of 18,259, but the people wearing those jerseys weren't very loud, or at least they weren't allowed to be.

When the Canadiens took the ice for warmups, they were met by timid cheers and a smattering of boos.

Fans who attempted to get a "Go Habs Go" chant going were met immediately with a chorus of boos. They were completely drowned out the first time and stopped almost immediately. The second time, they continued despite the booing.

It was almost as if there was a battle going on. A battle of Quebec.

"The rivalry's still alive," Canadiens center Charles Hudon said.

Though Desharnais grew up in the area and was a young boy when the Nordiques left, he grew up a Canadiens fan because his father rooted for the enemy at the time. So the atmosphere at Videotron Centre was nothing new to him. It was almost like a family reunion.

"I was like 8 or 9 [years old]," Desharnais said. "The memories I have are more my father fighting some uncles. Not fighting, but a battle of words with the family."

The Canadiens defeated the Penguins 4-1 on goals by Alexander Semin, his first in a Montreal uniform, Lars Eller, Brian Flynn and Dale Weise, with the Pittsburgh goal coming from Beau Bennett, but that was secondary on this night.

Quebecor Inc. has its expansion application for Quebec City in the hands of the NHL and has reached Stage 3 of the process, with information still being gathered on the viability of the market.

Considering it has been 20 years since the Nordiques last played at the Colisée, which is across the street from the new facility, it was worth wondering whether the city's fervent love of that team survived all this time.

It's hard to say whether that is the case, but one thing has most definitely survived from the old Battle of Quebec, and that is a clear dislike for the Canadiens.

It once could be fairly described as a hatred, but that's probably not fair to say anymore. Still, something from that era has lingered, and it was evident Monday.

What was equally evident was how much the fans of this city have missed NHL-caliber hockey.

The Quebec Remparts are one of the most successful franchises in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but the skill on display Monday clearly is on another level, even if it was just a preseason game.

Off the opening faceoff, the puck came back to Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov, who curled into his zone before unleashing a backhand saucer pass that landed on the tape of Desharnais at the Penguins blue line for a breakaway. Almost immediately, the fans of this city saw what they have been missing for 20 years, and a hush came over the crowd as Marc-Andre Fleury, a native of Sorel, Quebec, about a two-hour drive away, made a pad save.

A few minutes later, Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban spun away from Penguins forward Dominik Uher at the Pittsburgh blue line to create space for himself, and the crowd collectively let out an "Oooh" at the display of skill.

But as the game went on, the crowd settled into a bit of a lull, unsure of whether they could cheer for the Canadiens and unwilling to cheer for the Penguins despite their Quebec contingent of Fleury, Pascal Dupuis, David Perron, Kris Letang and Jean-Sebastien Dea.

Dupuis had to alter his regular game-day medical routine to stay in control of his blood clot condition in order to play, but it wasn't even debatable in his mind that he would.

"I didn't want to miss this," he said, "that's for sure."

At the very end, as the Canadiens saluted the fans before leaving the ice, the mix of cheers and boos was awkward, to say the least.

It was as if the crowd actually wanted to cheer against the Canadiens but couldn't without having a team of its own to cheer.

With a brand new building now in place and an expansion bid being considered by the NHL, perhaps one day they will.

"The people of Quebec City, sure, it's us, so maybe they were a little shy," Desharnais said. "But I'm sure when they have a team, that's going to be a loud building."

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