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Montreal Canadiens’ Eurotrip: Part 1 — A team in turmoil

Thirty years ago, the Canadiens traveled to the Soviet Union to start training camp.

Montreal Canadiens v New Jersey Devils Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

This past September, the Montreal Canadiens marked the 30th anniversary of their one-and-only trip across the Atlantic ocean to the Soviet Union. They brought their reputable franchise to an unfriendly territory, just as massive political upheaval was sweeping the territory, to face off against their storied rival for the first time on their soil. This is the story of that tour.

The history between the Canadiens and the Soviet Union is well documented. So it came with little surprise that one day the Canadiens would travel abroad to face their international foes. The chosen time happened to be a tour to start the 1990-91 training camp as the team was going through some major changes.

Arguably, the peak of the rivalry between the Canadiens and the Soviets was early on during the days of the dominant 70’s dynasty of Montreal, with the first meeting between the two sides creating the standard for all hockey games to follow.

Red Army Club v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images

In fact, prior to this trip, the Canadiens franchise faced Soviet representatives a total of six times, to a 3-2-1 record. Those games were:

  • December 31, 1975: Montreal ties Red Army, 3-3 (Super Series ‘76)
  • January 6, 1978: Montreal beats Spartak Moscow, 5-2 (Super Series ‘78)
  • December 31, 1979: Montreal beats Red Army, 4-2 (Super Series ‘80)
  • December 31, 1982: Soviet All-Stars beat Montreal, 5-0 (Super Series ‘83)
  • December 31. 1985: Red Army beats Montreal, 6-1 (Super Series ‘86)
  • January 3, 1990: Canadiens beats Soviet Wings 2-1 (Super Series ‘89)

On Tuesday, September 4, 1990, Montreal climbed aboard an Air Canada chartered flight headed to Sweden for their European training camp. They would train there and have one exhibition match before heading to Russia for a four-game series of friendly exhibition games against Russian clubs.

The roster:

  • Goalies: Jean-Claude Bergeron, Brian Hayward, André Racicot, Patrick Roy.
  • Defencemen: Jean-Jacques Daigneault, Eric Desjardins, Donald Dufresne, Sylvain Lefebvre, Lyle Odelein, Todd Richards, Mathieu Schneider, Petr Svoboda.
  • Centres: Guy Carbonneau, Andrew Cassels, Martin Desjardins, Stephan Lebeau, Brent Gilchrist, Denis Savard, Brian Skrudland.
  • Left Wing: Benoit Brunet, Shayne Corson, Tom Chorske, Mike McPhee, Mark Pederson, Ryan Walter.
  • Right Wing: Russ Courtnall, Todd Ewen, Mike Keane, Stéphane Richer.

The team may have been together, but it was far from a harmonious group.

Earlier in the summer, general manager Serge Savard traded all-star defenceman Chris Chelios to the Chicago Blackhawks for Denis Savard. A few weeks later, a 28-year-old Savard signed a brand new three-year contract worth a total of $3.5M, making him the first millionaire in Canadiens history.

Meanwhile established team veterans Carbonneau, Roy, and Svoboda were struggling in their contract negotiations with the GM, and they would have to declare while in Russia if they are playing out their option year. Corson was also upset about his existing contract and was looking forward to renegotiating his $260,000 contract that Savard admitted was below fair market value, especially if you consider that Corson scored 31 goals the prior season, four more than Denis Savard.

“I haven’t lost hope that we will come to an agreement with the Canadiens,” said Carbonneau (4-Sept-90, La Presse). “No bridges are burnt. I will focus on the training camp, letting my agent negotiate with Serge Savard.” It was reported that Savard offered a two-year deal for $650,000, but Carbonneau was looking for $900,000.

“As my agent Tom Reich said yesterday, I will most likely play out my option year,” claimed Svoboda (4-Sept-90, La Presse). “The offer from the Canadiens was ridiculous. I will still try to enjoy myself on this trip.” Svoboda was being positioned as the veteran defender on the team with the departure of Rick Green, Larry Robinson, Chris Chelios, and Craig Ludwig, and he was expecting his pay to go up accordingly. Savard was offering $550,000, Svoboda was looking for $800,000.

“I don’t think that all these contract negotiations will affect the team spirit on this trip,” said Roy (4-Sept-90, La Presse). When asked about his contract though, he answered with a “no comment.” Roy rejected a contract offer of slightly over $1M but less than Savard.

It was less because Savard’s agent, Pierre Lacroix, made an agreement with Serge Savard that Denis would be the highest-paid player on the Canadiens. The problem was that Lacroix also represented Roy, and therefore Lacroix had painted himself into a corner: Double-cross Denis by going back on his word about being the highest paid, or get Roy signed under his market value. “Why do you think that I wanted to sign Denis Savard first?” said Serge Savard (8-Sept-90, La Presse) with a big grin while watching his team skate up and down the ice in Stockholm.

The list of discontent players did not stop there. Prior to the team flying to Sweden, Savard traded at least one problem away by dealing Claude Lemieux to New Jersey for Sylvain Turgeon. “It wouldn’t have been a fun trip for me,” said Lemieux about the trip to the Soviet Union (4-Sept-90, La Presse). “I would have been complaining the entire time while everyone else would be having a good time.”

Ludwig was also traded, to the New York Islanders for Gerald Diduck, just moments before the team left for the airport. Ludwig had also asked to renegotiate his contract, which played into the move. The way the trade was handled, however, was seen as a humiliation of Ludwig by many. He should have never been made to come to the Forum if trade negotiations were underway. “I didn’t expect that it would be done like this,” said a downtrodden Ludwig (4-Sept-90, La Presse) who was told to go home as soon as he arrived and wait for further instruction. The public humiliation was seen as a message to those that Savard would have to face while together in Europe, but Savard already warned their agents that there would be no negotiations while the team is in Europe.

Turgeon, coming off of groin surgery, would not make the trip to Europe but Diduck arrived separately a few days after the rest of the team.

With some older veterans leaving over the past few years, including Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson, Bobby Smith, Rick Green, and Chelios, head coach Pat Burns was worried about the team’s cohesiveness amidst all the distractions and the upcoming series of games in Russia. “Let’s not get freaked out. The real camp will start on the 20th of September once we get back to the Forum. This tour will be used to make the guys work, to play some of the younger players, and to have some good games.” (4-Sept-90, La Presse)

Denis Brodeur Collection Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images

Burns called Terry Crisp and Brian Murray before leaving to see how their teams (Calgary Flames and Washington Capitals) coped with the Russian tour the year prior. “Both told me that it complicated their seasons. Some guys caught colds, others came back really tired. But we took this into account and they were like the lab rats who went into it blind. We are prepared for this unique training camp.”

Burns was actually happy to be evaluating his players in a friendlier setting rather than against NHLers trying to impress their coaches in training camp by getting physical during games. The fact was, the Canadiens lost a lot of physicality by trading away Chelios, Ludwig, and Lemieux.

“The team will benefit from this trip. We have several new faces on the team. This trip will bring the team together, like how it usually happens when the team goes out west at the start of the season.”

It’s under this context of roster turnover, contractual disputes, and routine-busting that the Canadiens traveled to Europe to begin their 1990-91 season.