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.
As beautiful and regal as Stockholm was, when the Canadiens players arrived in Leningrad for their first stop of the Soviet tour, they were shocked by what they saw. They didn’t see the city of tsars decorated in gold, but an abandoned city in a visible state of neglect and decline. They saw lineups of people dressed in lifeless grey-tone fabric trying to buy basic necessities like bread. They saw Lada cars, waiting three dozen deep, for their turn to pump a small ration of petrol. This was a population crushed by the reality of a failing empire.
“We undertook to get rid of our overwhelming bureaucracy, but we had nothing to replace it with,” were the words of one of the interpreters that was assigned to the Canadiens and the media attachment that traveled with them (Sep. 12, 1990, La Presse).
“I am in total shock,” said Stephan Lebeau. “I had prepared myself. I didn’t want to fall for the usual stereotypes, but the situation is one hundred times worse than I imagined. It’s sad. There is nothing in stores, and everything seems old and decrepit.”
“The quality of life is much inferior to that of 1972,” said Serge Savard, recalling the Summit Series. “You can’t even compare the two. We are not in Russia, we are in some sort of a United Nations zone.”
The Canadiens’ first game of their Soviet tour was against an amalgamated team of players from two Soviet teams: Torpedo Yaroslavl and SKA Leningrad. It was in front of 6,500 fans that Denis Savard had his coming-out party with two goals and two assists in a 5-3 win for the Habs, as the top line of Savard, Stéphane Richer, and Shayne Corson collected nine points in all.
Lebeau scored quickly on the power play in the first period as the Soviets took a too many men on the ice penalty in the first minute of play. There were several roster spots to be earned in the Canadiens lineup that season, and Lebeau definitely impressed Pat Burns with his play early on. After that goal the top line took over, and scored the next four for the Habs.
The Soviets made it interesting in the third, clawing back from down 5-1 to 5-3, but that was as close as they would get. Of note, scoring for the Soviets was Andrei Tarasenko, the father of current St. Louis Blues’ player Vladimir.
Clouding the Canadiens’ win was an injury to Benoit Brunet, who tried to check an opponent and ended up tearing ligaments in his right knee, knocking him out of action for two months.
A certain lack of discipline crept into the Canadiens’ game as the Soviets had nine power plays, mostly due to roughing or cross-checking penalties, of which they were thankfully only able to convert once. This indiscipline would become a running theme throughout the tour, and the Canadiens’ luck on the penalty kill would eventually run out.
There were several honours given out after the game. Ryan Walter was named most tenacious player, Denis Savard received player of the game honours, and Petr Svoboda and Bryan Hayward received best defenceman and best goaltender, respectively.
“We didn’t let the culture shock get into out heads and stayed focused on the game,” said Savard (Sep. 13 1990, La Presse). “But it wasn’t easy to be ready. I was personally shocked by what I saw.”
“They gave us our money’s worth,” said Richer. “It was a tough and hard-hitting game”. The game was treated as a major event across the entire USSR, as it was broadcast across the entire territory.
“The Canadiens are obviously a huge draw in the Soviet Union, as you can see,” said Serge Savard. “The people who run hockey here have killed all competition by continually stacking the Red Army team. There are no trades, and the best players were always assigned to the same team. Arenas were empty across the country because it was always the same team that won.”
Although the Canadiens didn’t have too much trouble on the ice this time, it was off the ice where things were difficult, especially around nailing down an exchange rate for American dollars, which varied widely depending on the source.
Journalists who were calling in their daily report were charged $21 USD per minute for the connection; hints of extortion. In all, for the one telephone line offered to all of the media combined, the hotel made a tidy $5,552 USD. The NHL even stepped in offering $1,000 USD cash to the hotel to ensure an outside line from Montreal could reach the reporters, but profiteering was clearly at the forefront as locals desperately tried to survive under dire circumstances by seizing an opportunity offered up by the needs of these ‘rich’ foreigners. The players gladly helped to load their own gear onto the plane when it came time to fly to the next destination.
As shocking and despondent as the trip to Leningrad was, it was the complete opposite feeling when the Canadiens arrived in Riga, in the recently separated Latvia that had just ceded from the Soviet Union. Gone was the feeling of being held hostage for the players, but the culture shock remained.
Latvians were happy to be ridding themselves of the collapsing Soviet regime, but prosperity was still far off. The country was impoverished. According to columnist Réjean Tremblay, who was among the delegation following the team on this tour, the country was out of sugar, miilk, flour, alcohol, cigarettes, and meat. “You haven’t been able to find any soap for 15 days. It’s a miracle to be able to wash yourself,” he quoted his local interpreter (Sep. 14, 1990, La Presse). “But at least nobody is scared any longer. Three years ago I would have been sent to a gulag for talking this way. Each Latvian family has at least one member who was sent to a gulag. But [the Soviets] are done, they won’t be able to stop us now. All that we hope is that it doesn’t end in blood.”
In the second leg of the Soviet tour, the Canadiens defeated Dinamo Riga 4-2 in front of around 5,500 fans. The top line was again on fire scoring three of those four goals. The addition of Savard was already paying dividends, as he was seemingly becoming the centreman the team has yearned for years, making the loss of Chris Chelios slightly more palpable.
His impact was more than just on the ice. He was also a leader in the locker room, earning his stripes in a leadership role as captain of the Blackhawks. The net effect of removing Chelios and adding Savard was absolutely seen as a major cultural change for the team and its players.
“I certainly don’t want my words to be taken as a negative,” said Stéphane Richer (Sep. 15, 1990, La Presse), “but it’s obvious that with the arrival of Savard and his behaviour on and off the ice he has completely changed the character of this club. There is no more division in the locker room, we just have one leadership core.”
The previous season Chelios shared the captaincy with Guy Carbonneau as three rounds of player voting could not break the tie. This reinforced and dug in factions within the locker room, which certainly took away from a shared outlook for the team.
In the Riga game, Russ Courtnall had the other goal, but as was the case in the game in Leningrad, penalty trouble haunted the Habs, giving eight power plays to Riga. The Canadiens surrendered just one power-play goal.
Sylvain Lefebvre was given the award for most gentlemanly player, while Richer, Svoboda, and Carbonneau were also recipients of post-game recognition.
The Canadiens encountered another draft pick during this game. Harijs Vitolinsh was a ninth-round pick in 1988, and he was the son of the president of the Latvian ice hockey federation. Although he was hoping for an invitation to the Canadiens’ training camp one day, already then he knew that his odds were fairly small. The Canadiens would eventually relinquish his rights, only for the Winnipeg Jets to draft him in 1993. Vitolinsh did attain his dream of playing in the NHL with the Jets that season, but was mainly assigned to the AHL. He returned to Europe after a single season. He is a current assistant coach with the Kontinental Hockey League’s Spartak Moscow.
The Canadiens attended a gala presented by the organizers of the exhibition game, and then after a short sleep at their hotel, they were back in the air for an early morning flight to Moscow, where things were about to take a drastically non-friendly turn.