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.
It was all leading up to this. The most decorated team in hockey history, the Montreal Canadiens, against the most prestigious team in the Soviet Union, CSKA, the Red Army. But it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
“It’s certain that this game has become a big deal,” admitted Pat Burns (18-Sep-90, La Presse). “But in my book, it’s giving too much importance to an exhibition game at this stage of the season. We are in Russia to get in shape, not to be playing a prestigious hockey summit. The Soviets have been training and playing for over a month and a half. It’s not very fair to us.”
The players themselves were reaching their breaking points and feeling a lot of pressure. Tired from all the travel, and frustrated after a bad game against Dynamo, nerves were high. During practice, Shayne Corson and Brian Skrudland started shoving each other after Skrudland accidentally hit Corson in the face with his stick during a scrimmage and Corson retaliated. Then Mike McPhee jumped in to back up Skrudland before Stéphane Richer got involved to even up the sides. McPhee and Corson almost came to blows. Eventually, Burns had to interject himself to calm everyone down.
“I accidentally hit him in the face and he retaliated. These sorts of things happen,” said Skrudland (18-Sept-90, Le Soleil). “We talked it out afterward, and it’s forgotten.”
They downplayed the incident but, clearly, the players were on edge. Adding to the travel exhaustion many players still had unresolved contract issues, Corson included, who, rumour has it, was saying that he would boycott the first game of the regular season without a new contract. Russ Courtnall was another unsatisfied player and was asking to be traded.
On an organized tour by the host city, the players got to visit the Kremlin on their first day in Moscow where they had to endure two hours of praise of Lenin by their tour guide, all the while having knowledge of the state of the country around them. They didn’t quite appreciate the last vestiges of Soviet propaganda.
“The players are fed up.” When asked if he would see himself running another similar training camp Burns answered, “Never.”
For the game against the Red Army, Burns was true to his word and loaded up the roster with 22 players; Martin Desjardins and Ryan Walter acting as the spare players and scratching Andrew Cassels, Todd Richards, Lyle Odelein, Eric Desjardins, and Todd Ewen. Despite a fractured toe, the robust Mike Keane was inserted into the lineup.
On the Red Army side, there was a deep list of players: Pavel Bure, Andrei Kovalenko, Sergei Zubov, Valeri Kamensky, Oleg Petrov, Igor Kravchuk, Vladimir Konstantinov, and Vladimir Malakhov, are an example of the most recognizable names. The Soviets were living with the terrifying uncertainty of their place under the new order. As the people in the streets fought to survive, the players themselves clearly all felt the need to prove to whoever was watching that they could hang physically with the best from North America so in the event that the Iron Curtain was to fall, they could find lucrative employment in the NHL. What ensued would be considered a hard-nosed battle of eternal rivals akin to a playoff game against the Boston Bruins game in the 1970s — not a friendly exhibition to complete the Canadiens preseason.
The Canadiens were given four consecutive penalties in the first period which fueled emotions even further. The festivities kicked off with the score tied at two. With two minutes left in the second period, McPhee locked up with Malakhov, kicking off the first brawl of the game and seeing both players ejected on the play.
The third period was all about settling scores. Players were forgetting to play the puck and just focused on hitting each other as hard as possible. Petr Svoboda was ejected from the game for intent to injure, and a few minutes later chaos erupted. Mike Keane started a fight with Igor Malihin, which was a hard-fought affair, then Gerald Diduck jumped in drawing Soviets and Habs into a fray.
The game against the Canadiens was played in front of Anatoly Tarasov, the elder statesman of Soviet hockey. He is widely credited with the creation of the Soviet style of play. The fans did not particularly enjoy the lack of skill shown during the game, a sharp contrast to the Soviet system, and were disgusted by the descent towards animalistic chaos. Fans became so incensed that they began throwing bottles on the ice at the Canadiens, to which Burns reacted by pulling his team off the bench and back to the locker room.
By the time the dust settled Diduck, Corson, and Donald Dufresne all earned game misconducts, and both teams completed the period with severely shortened benches. It only took 50 seconds of overtime for Kovalenko to beat Jean-Claude Bergeron on a rebound to the end the game, and the tour, for the Canadiens — who were probably more than glad that this experience was coming to an end with a record of two wins and two losses.
“I’ve been following the Canadiens for 30 years. Never would I have imagined them lowering themselves to such an extent,” were the words of Viktor Tikhonov, head coach of CSKA, who then tempered his declaration by saying that this sort of rough play is normal for the National Hockey League, but not for Soviet hockey. However, this game was not an isolated incident. The Minnesota North Stars, who were on the Soviet tour in parallel with the Canadiens, saw the final game of their tour also end in total disarray against Khimik Voskresensk. The fact that the Soviets were standing up for themselves physically and not backing down was being dubbed “The new Capitalist Soviet style” by the media.
“It’s enough to just stay here eight days to understand that these Soviet players all realize that they can play in the NHL, and will do anything to get there.” said Guy Carbonneau (19-Sept-90, Le Soleil) who earned Player of the Game honours for the Canadiens. “It was a good game. The Soviets don’t hook, slash, or spear more than any other team in the NHL. But we probably overreact to it because they are Russian.”
Burns did not necessarily blame his team or the Soviets, but rather the official. “The referee lost control of the game before even the first puck dropped. Before the game I asked the Soviets how many players they would have, and they said 22. When we were about to start it was 24. I asked the referee about it and all he did was shake my hand.” (19-Sept-90, Le Soleil)
The Canadiens first line was again held scoreless and it was mainly down to their own undoing. Richer once again earned the ire of Burns for his mindless penalties and lack of effort. “I don’t know what is going on with Richer. He’s got everything going for him: He has the best centerman on the team, a juicy contract in his pocket, he’s popular, he has it all. But there is a limit to what a coach can do for him. Something is going to have to give, he needs to react.” (19-Sept-90, La Presse) “He’s not paid to play a gorilla from what I know. We can’t have Denis Savard get tired of doing all the work for Richer. Right now if there is any pressure whatsoever, ‘Steph’ gives up on the play. I don’t know what is up with him.”
Generally speaking, Burns did not view the trip in a positive light. “We were delayed, we were lied to, we were cheated everywhere we went. And now they want us to go home with happy memories of this place. It’s impossible.” (19-Sept-90, La Presse). As for his best memory of the Soviet tour? “Sweden.” (20-Sept-90, La Presse).
Burns then talked about the impact the tour had on the players. “It’s going to take about ten days to two weeks for the players to recharge their batteries”. (20-Sept-90, Le Soleil). Players were not only tired from the trip and the time zone change, but they were also off their diets because team cooked meals were not always available, so the team went to Pizza Hut and McDonalds frequently. Some players came back with colds. Thankfully only one serious injury was sustained during the trip, being the one to Benoit Brunet. They would go on to lose two consecutive pre-season games against the Edmonton Oilers and the Bruins.
“From a cultural perspective it was incredible.” said Patrick Roy upon arriving back at Mirabel airport. “From a hockey perspective, I returned frustrated and furious. I am a winner, and I do not like to undertake a game when the odds are not even. Two weeks of training versus six weeks, it’s not enough. And the refereeing was not proportional to the intensity and quality of the games”.
“These games between North American teams and the Soviets have been very good for our sport since 1972,” said Serge Savard (20-Sept-90, La Presse). “They encouraged the improvement of the sport. That said, perhaps it would be good to take a break for a few years. Nothing against the Russians, but they have bigger problems on a daily basis than hockey right now. I do not regret going. It’s positive for our team, that’s for sure. We had a duty to fulfill to the National Hockey League, and we did it.”
In the days leading up to the regular season, Roy signed a new contract that made him the richest paid player in Canadiens history, signing a three-year contract with an option, valued annually just a notch above Denis Savard once all the bonuses and deferred payments would be taken into account. Other players like Carbonneau, Svoboda, and Skrudland were among eight players who had to start the option year on their contract while Serge Savard played hardball in contract negotiations. Trade requests were made by many of them. Brian Hayward outright refused to continue with the team, earning him a suspension and a trade to the Minnesota North Stars.
If the trip to the Soviet Union was to have a unifying effect for the team, it utterly failed. Instead, it left the team tired and with unfinished business that could have been otherwise concluded prior to the season starting. The team would go on to barely win half of their first 15 games in a season that would see one more game against a Soviet team as part of the annual Super Series event, a cleanly played 6-3 loss on December 10 to Khimik at the Montreal Forum. It was the Soviet-style game that failed to crown the Soviet tour in September.
It would be the final time that the Canadiens played against a representative of their storied rival. Fitting since the Soviet Union collapsed completed shortly after. Perhaps it is once again time to seriously consider rekindling the competition and wonder how the 2020 version of the Montreal Canadiens would stack up against the KHL’s Red Army (CSKA) and SKA St. Petersburg.