In 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 unfriendly territory just as massive political upheaval was sweeping the region, to face off against their storied rival for the first time on their soil. This is the story of that tour.
The Canadiens traveled to Stockholm, Sweden to begin their 1990-91 training camp, with one exhibition game planned locally before traveling to the Soviet Union for a four-game tour.
While the players settled into their European environment, there was some unnecessary drama to start things off. Because the exhibition games were against non-NHL teams, the NHL wanted the Canadiens to wear the generic orange-and-black NHL jerseys to represent the league internationally and grow the brand’s visibility.
“I am very disappointed in the league’s mandate that our players need to wear the colours of the NHL,” said general manager Serge Savard (Sep. 7, 1990, La Presse), “but the league wants to popularize their jersey in these international matches and we need to follow these decisions.”
“We have a contract and according to this contract we are playing the Montreal Canadiens, not some generic NHL team. I will not accept that the Canadiens play in Stockholm wearing any other jersey than their iconic red, white, and blue.” said Anders Hedberg, the general manager of Stockholm AIK. “All the publicity and marketing was based on the Canadiens. It’s the world’s most famous team. I would not have invited any other team than the Canadiens. There needs to be a solution.”
As “luck” would have it, the Canadiens “forgot” the NHL jerseys at home before flying to Europe with a full set of their home and away uniforms. When the Canadiens’ equipment manager. Eddie Palchak, was asked about the whereabouts of the NHL jerseys, he had no idea what people were talking about.
“NHL jerseys? What are you talking about? I only brought the regular jerseys of the Montreal Canadiens. It’s too late now anyways. Nobody has the correct sizes or the player nameplates to prepare these NHL jerseys that stayed in Canada.”
Ultimately the NHL agreed that the Canadiens could wear their team jersey, and that in fact the whole thing was a misunderstanding and that they only meant that NHL teams would wear the NHL jersey when the Soviets came to North America later in the year.
Maurice Richard, in his La Presse column, believed that there was sufficient pressure put on the league for it to back-off from their initial request. “Put yourself in the shoes of the fans in Sweden and Russia. For the first time in your life you will finally be able to see the Canadiens play, the legendary team that symbolizes excellence in hockey. But the players won’t be able to wear their legendary uniform, but a bland generic uniform of the NHL.
“Thankfully someone somewhere had some common sense and the Canadiens will look like the team that the European hockey fans were looking forward to seeing.”
The Canadiens’ first opponent of the tour was the local Stockholm club, AIK, which had just wrapped up an eight-team tournament, playing three games in four nights, so certainly Montreal would be skating with fresher legs. The big draw for AIK was Borje Salming who, after a 17-year NHL career, returned to Sweden to close out his career. Unfortunately the former Maple Leafs great had to leave the game early in the first period because of a laceration to the back of the knee.
In his first game wearing the Montreal Canadiens jersey, Denis Savard was given the captain’s C on his jersey, as Guy Carbonneau and several other veterans were sitting out the first exhibition game of five. “It’s a bloody nice jersey,” said Savard (Sept 11, 1990, La Presse). “And to play a first game with the captain’s C, it’s really special.”
Just a slight glitch, as Palchuk forgot to pin the C to Savard’s jersey to start the game, so it wasn’t until the first intermission that the error was corrected.
Shayne Corson, Savard, and Stéphane Richer were united as a new top line for the Canadiens, and before they even played a game there were some heightened expectations around what they could bring to the team from a production standpoint. The team certainly had trouble scoring the year before, and here the Canadiens had a top line being heralded as a worthy successor to Lafleur-Lemaire-Shutt of the glory days.
Brent Gilchrist opened the scoring for Montreal six minutes into the first period with an assist from centreman Martin Desjardins, one of the hopeful prospects to make the trip to Europe. Another hopeful, Stéphan Lebeau, scored a couple of goals, as did Richer, in front of 8,658 fans piled into the Globe Arena, the largest domed building in the world. The audience watched the Canadiens dominate their team 7-1. The other scorers were Benoit Brunet and Donald Dufresne, both on the power play. Patrick Roy and Jean-Claude Bergeron split the goaltending duties.
Richer displayed some poor judgment in the third period when he protested a penalty call after a scuffle in front of the Swedish net, and tried to trip the referee on his way to the penalty bench. This earned him two minutes for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct.
The lines for the game were: Corson-Savard-Richer, Pederson-Lebeau-Chorske, Brunet-Cassels-Courtnall, and Gilchrist-Desjardins-Keane.
The Canadiens had the opportunity to see first-hand how their 1988 fourth-round draft pick, Patric Kjellberg, was progressing, but he failed to leave his mark on the game.
The Canadiens managed to do some sightseeing of Stockholm before the game, going around town, visiting the shops, and taking photos from a tourist boat that they rented. It was a pleasant atmosphere for the team to start getting to know one another.
It was going to be an altogether different story as they boarded an Aeroflot charter plane bound for Leningrad, where a revolution was in full swing and the quality of life of the locals would shock the players.