To Russia with love

NHL and KHL set differences aside; play historic exhibitions

03.10.2010
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The last time an NHL team was on Russian soil the country was still the Soviet Union. The Montreal Canadiens on Moscow’s Red Square in September 1990. Photo: Szymon Szemberg

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – For the first time in 20 years, an NHL team will play in Russia when the star-studded SKA St. Petersburg takes on the Carolina Hurricanes on October 4. IIHF.com reminisces about the tour of 1990 which started with friendship in Leningrad and ended in mayhem in Moscow.

Not many hockey fans could have imagined even two years ago that two NHL teams would travel to Russia’s KHL to play what Europeans call friendly games (exhibition game is the North American terminology). At that time, in the summer of 2008, the two leagues were involved in a bitter dispute following Alexander Radulov’s transfer from Nashville to Salavat Yulayev Ufa.

Radulov signed with the Russian club, before the KHL’s inaugural season, while still under contract with his NHL team. But time is the healer of all wounds and soon, the NHL and the KHL proudly announced a few months ago that Carolina would travel to St. Petersburg and play the army club SKA on October 4 while Phoenix is scheduled to be in Riga, Latvia, to play Dinamo Riga two days later.

Both games will attract substantial interest in the hockey world, especially among fans in Europe. The games will be used as a gauge of quality between the NHL and the KHL, although the NHL has not sent a prime franchise to these “ice breakers”.

One may be assured that if the KHL teams win one game – let alone both – it will be used by the Russian league as an sign of the KHL’s growing strength and prestige vis-à-vis its North American rivals.

And why not? Only by competing against each other can conclusions be drawn and bragging rights determined.

Not only are the two games highly anticipated, they are also historic. The last time NHL clubs played in Russia, it was still called Soviet Union; St. Petersburg was Leningrad, and Riga was part of the Soviet state.

It was nearly 20 years ago that the storied Montreal Canadiens and the late Minnesota North Stars travelled east. The Canadiens’ tour attracted much of the attention. It took them to Leningrad, Riga, and, finally, Moscow with games against the powerhouses Dynamo and CSKA.

At that time, many Soviet hockey fans remembered the 1975 New Year’s Eve Classic at the Montreal Forum between the Canadiens and CSKA Moscow, a game which ended with a 3-3 tie despite the NHL-club holding a 38-13 shots advantage. It was a game that many called “the best game ever played”, at least between two club teams.

It was also a game that made Montreal the team of choice for many hockey fans in this enormous country.

Looking back on the Canadiens tour which began in Leningrad on September 12, 1990, one can only say what an amazing tour it was. The state-of-the art 12,000-seat St. Petersburg Ice Palace where SKA and Carolina will play on Monday was exactly ten years away from being built. The opening game of the series was played in the ancient Yubileyny Sport Palace, capacity 7,600.

The game was announced as Montreal vs. SKA Leningrad, but the home team was in fact a combination between SKA and neighboring Torpedo Yaroslavl. Denis Savard led the Canadiens with two goals in a relatively easy 5-3 victory.

When the team, accompanied by club officials and at least twenty Canadian media, arrived in Riga, everyone was suddenly aware of the political situation in the East, and most realized that the Soviet Union was in a state of dissolution.

The fans in Riga gave the guests a royal reception and took every opportunity to point out that they were welcoming the Canadiens to Latvia -- and not the Soviet Union. Although everyone felt the winds of change, few could imagine that less than one year later Latvia would – after 50 years – become an independent country.

The Montreal players were shocked to see an almost-full Riga Sports Palace (capacity 5,000) for the practice one day before the game against Dinamo Riga. The Latvian fans went into a frenzy as the team gathered at centre ice and spontaneously saluted the fans, who gave them a standing ovation.

Although Dynamo took an early lead in the game on September 14, Montreal still had a pretty easy ride in 4-2 win. Patrick Roy shared goaltending duties with Jean-Claude (“remember me?”) Bergeron. Yes, for the NHL team it was still very much a training camp.

But the whole “friendly game” business ended as soon as the team arrived in Moscow. For Dynamo Moscow and their rivals CSKA, this tour had nothing to do with friendship or exhibition. For them the games against the 23-time Stanley Cup champion (the 24th title would come three years later) and the team that only one year earlier played in the Stanley Cup final was a matter of pride and prestige. It was a meeting much more important than many Soviet league games.

The Canadiens, still with a training camp roster, were simply not ready for this contest. Two days after the routine win in Riga, they were outclassed, outhit, and outshot at the Luzhniki Arena by a strong and determined Dynamo Moscow team, losing the game, 4-1. Shots on goal: 37-17 for the host. The Canadiens were never in the game. The capacity crowd of 10,000 celebrated a big win.

What was meant to be a pinnacle of the tour two days later – the nostalgia repeat of the 1975 Montreal vs. CSKA classic – ended in chaos and shame. Midway through the third period (with the teams tied 2-2) was the first, and probably last, bench clearing brawl in the legendary Luzhniki during the Soviet era.

Players fought left and right, and when Canadiens’ defenceman Gerald Diduck tore off his sweater to have a better swing at his opponent, fans started to throw bottles and coins onto the ice. Eventually, Finnish referee Seppo Mäkelä restored order and, in overtime, Andrei Kovalenko scored the game-winner for a 3-2 win.

Ironically, Kovalenko became a Montreal Canadiens forward five years later, and will forever be remembered for scoring the last goal at the Montreal Forum on March 11, 1996.

Not only would the Soviet Union cease to exist just one year after this game, but this Montreal vs. CSKA encounter also ended an era in NHL – Soviet/Russia relations. Very soon, all the best Russian players left for the NHL and the club games between the two leagues lost their appeal.

It has taken two decades to bring back a classic East vs. West hockey rivalry, triggered by the revival of Russian hockey and the launch of the KHL.

The SKA St. Petersburg vs. Carolina game will be the one to watch. SKA – run by KHL President and IIHF Council Member Alexander Medvedev – is the new powerhouse in the Russian league, and it has spent serious money on luring back NHLers like goalie Yevgeni Nabokov (from San Jose), defenceman Denis Grebeshkov (Nashville), and forward Maxim Afinogenov (Atlanta).

The team is stocked with stars including Alexei Yashin, home-town hero Maxim Sushinsky, Sergei Zubov, Czechs Petr Cajanek and Jakub Stepanek, and Swedes Tony Mårtensson and Mattias Weinhandl.

The Eric Staal-led Carolina Hurricanes (2006 Stanley Cup champion) should realize the following: for SKA St. Petersburg the game will neither be a “friendly” nor an “exhibition” game. For them it will be like a Stanley Cup final. That the NHL club is still in training camp mode won’t make any difference for the host.

The rivalry is back.

NOTES:
  • The game is sold out, so attendance should be around 12,000. SKA St. Petersburg has 18 points from the first 11 KHL games which is good enough for a fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Swede Mattias Weinhandl leads the team in scoring with 13 points (5+8) in 11 games.
  • Carolina (3W-2L in NHL exhibition games) will be missing Russian forward Sergei Samsonov. The left winger suffered a neck injury when he was tripped into the boards during an exhibition game in Atlanta. He will not travel with the team to Europe, and will be reassessed when the Hurricanes return.
  • Carolina, which won the first post-lockout Stanley Cup in 2006, will play two NHL-regular season games vs. Minnesota in Helsinki, Finland on October 7 and 8. The club missed the playoffs in 2007, 2008 and 2010.
  • This is only the second time that an NHL-team will face a KHL-club. In the inaugural Victoria Cup on October 1, 2008, the New York Rangers rallied from a 3-0 deficit to defeat European champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk, 4-3, with Ryan Callahan netting the winner with 20 seconds remaining. The game was played in Bern, Switzerland.
  • This will be the 110th meeting between an NHL club and a club team from Soviet Union/Russia with the latter leading the all-time standings with 58 wins, 41 losses with 10 games ending with ties. Goals: 409-359 in favour of Soviet/Russian clubs. The first ever club game between the rivals was on December 28, 1975 when CSKA Moscow defeated the New York Rangers 7-3 at Madison Square Garden.

Click for a list of all games between NHL clubs and European clubs and all NHL games played in Europe since 1938.

SZYMON SZEMBERG

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