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.
Halfway through their Soviet tour, the Canadiens players were not just getting mentally tired, but also physically tired after all the frequent travel and short sleeps. After an early morning flight following the previous night’s gala, from Riga to Moscow, Pat Burns cancelled practice and gave the players a necessary day off, satisfied with the progress they had made in overcoming the challenges thus far on the trip, and hoping that it would recharge batteries.
“We won two good games, but the hardest is yet to come,” said Pat Burns (Sep. 14, 1990, La Presse). “The Red Army (CSKA) and Dynamo (Moscow) finished first and second last year. And they will be ready.”
With their Leningrad experience fresh in their minds, the Canadiens arrived in Moscow to similar circumstances of poverty and disrepair. The hotel was in a bad state, and you couldn’t leave it without being swarmed by young kids who supplicated for any loose change you might have. Réjean Tremblay of La Presse noted that Moscow was unrecognizable from the time he visited in 1980 for the Olympic Games.
The mighty Soviet empire that sculpted itself on dignity and national pride had abandoned its people to despair and survival. In one of his daily entries, Tremblay quoted his media colleague from CBC, John Hancock: “This is too sad. I can’t handle any more of this country.” (Sep. 16, 1990, La Presse)
Emotions were running high in Moscow as a crowd of approximately 200,000 people took to the streets earlier in the day demanding the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev and his prime minister as the Soviet regime engaged, peacefully for now, in a battle of wills with the people of Moscow. Surely out of an overabundance of caution, the media contingent following the Canadiens found themselves at the Canadian embassy in Moscow writing their daily reports, under the pretense of better telephone access to their home bases, but also an invitation that was rather hard to refuse under the societal circumstances.
On the ice, Burns had a good top line in Richer, Savard, and Corson, but the other lines were slow to show any real promise. The “Kid Line” of Mark Pederson, Stephan Lebeau, and Tom Chorske was doing fine, mainly thanks to the play of Lebeau, and obviously Guy Carbonneau was his usual great self regardless of who he played with, especially as general of the team’s much-used penalty-kill unit. But others were failing to really stand out.
As the Canadiens got ready for the first part of the toughest section of their tour against Dynamo Moscow, Burns decided to scratch several veterans, most notably Petr Svoboda, Carbonneau, and Patrick Roy, in order to allow some other lesser-used players to play. Mike McPhee would also be making his first start, testing out his recovery from an abdominal injury. An exhibition game would of course permit the leniency of scratching several veterans, but in retrospect that was probably a bad decision.
Nine thousand people packed the arena to watch the Canadiens falter out of the gates, not prepared mentally or physically for the game. Dynamo took advantage of that and came out hard.
The games on this tour, so far, had been rather easy for Montreal. Suddenly they were faced with a foe that was charged emotionally and prepared physically. The Soviets came out banging, and the Canadiens lost their cool and forwent discipline for cheap hits and stupid penalties all game long. Todd Ewen, unable to keep up with the pace imposed by the Soviets, got frustrated and launched into a fight, getting ejected from the game early in the first period. Carbonneau, a planned scratch, came into the game in the second period to replace Ewen.
The Canadiens lost the game 4-1, with the first three Dynamo goals being scored on the power play as the Canadiens could absolutely not stay out of the penalty box, yet again. Overall they took eight penalties. Burns reportedly exploded on his players during the first intermission, but it did little to persuade the team to pull it together. Mathieu Schneider spent the game head-hunting, taking several cross-checking penalties. Shayne Corson, Stéphane Richer, and Russ Courtnall also lacked the necessary discipline to compete with a team of Dynamo’s stature.
The Canadiens scored their only goal in the final minute of the third period, when Pederson scored off of a brilliant pass from Andrew Cassels across the crease. It was too little too late. The game was never close, and although there was the slightest glimmer of a comeback in the third period for the Canadiens, Richer took a double-minor to end any momentum swing in the Habs’ favour.
After the game, Burns said that the Canadiens were just handed a lesson on the art of puck-possession, and he praised Dynamo for their skill, saying that they would surely rank among the top 10 best teams in the NHL. The Dynamo lineup included some notable players, including future NHLers Alex Kovalev, Igor Korolev, Alexander Semak, Alex Karpovtsev, and Alexei Zhamnov, as well as Alexander Galchenyuk, the father of the future Canadiens first-rounder, and was coached by Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, Alexander Romanov’s grandfather.
Brian Hayward was named the player of the game for the Canadiens, as he did what he could to keep the team in the match. André Racicot replaced him halfway through the game with the score just 1-0 Dynamo, despite the lopsided game play.
“We were frustrated to see them pass the puck to each other so easily,” said Hayward (Sep. 18, 1990, Le Soleil). “We were also tired. This long trip is beginning to show its effects. If we hope to beat the Red Army, we will need to be at the highest level of concentration and discipline.”
“If we play like this against the Red Army, they will pummel us 10-0,” said captain Carbonneau, who was kept busy by his teammates’ lack of self-control.
“We were never in control of the game,” summarized Brian Skrudland (Sep. 18, 1990, La Presse). “We lacked discipline against Riga as well, but Dynamo is not Riga, and they made us pay.”
“For the last game we will have everyone.” said Serge Savard, unhappy with his team’s performance, but extending an olive branch to his players. “Tonight we didn’t ice the best lineup.”
“The last game against the Red Army is the big one, and they will be ready. We will be as well,” Burns promised. (Sep. 17, 1990, La Presse)
But if this loss was going to serve as a wakeup call to clear heads and present a united front for their final and greatest challenge, it swung the other way entirely. During practice the next day, several fights almost broke out between the Canadiens players.