This is part a continuing series of articles entitled – The Forgotten Habs. Each column will focus on a player who was a valuable contributor to the success of the Montreal Canadiens. These players, by and large part have largely been forgotten to the passage of time, and their role in the history of the Canadiens has become a mere footnote in the team’s glorious history. None of these players can be found in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but without them, the history of the bleu, blanc, et rouge, would not be so illustrious.
“In the dressing room, killing time before an Edmonton/Montreal game, Wayne Gretzky fills out an all star game ballot to kill some time before the game starts, and the first name he checks off at left wing is Mats Naslund.” – Les Canadiens Jan/Feb. 1986
Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey, Dickie Moore, Toe Blake, Aurele Joliat, Bert Olmstead, Frank Mahovlich, Joe Malone. All honored in the hockey hall of fame, all of them great left wingers that played for the Montreal Canadiens.
But, none of them hold the Canadiens record for most points in a season by a left winger. That honor belongs to a five foot, seven inch, one hundred and sixty pound player born in Sweden, named Mats Naslund.
During the 1980’s there was no more popular player in Montreal than Mats Naslund. Given the nickname “the Little Viking”, Naslund wowed Montreal fans with his combination of speed, quickness, and determination, and quickly inherited Guy Lafleur’s status as the team’s most dynamic and biggest offensive star.
“I’d say right now he’s the most powerful offensive individual we’ve had on the team since Guy Lafleur.” – Bob Gainey 1985
Mats Naslund was born on October 31st, 1959 in Timra, a small city located in the northern part of Sweden. Mats hockey skills were obvious at a very early age. When Mats was only six years old he was already playing against boys five years older than him.
In 1975, at the age of sixteen Mats joined Timra’s team in the Swedish junior league and suited up for three games. In 1976-77 Naslund scored 28 points in 17 games and was named the Swedish junior player of the year. Mats topped off this banner year by scoring 12 points in 6 games, as part of Sweden’s gold medal winning team at the European Junior Championships.
In 1977-78 Naslund resumed his junior playing career with Timra, scoring 19 points in 35 games that season. It was during this year that Mats was chosen to play for team Sweden at the World Junior Championships in Montreal.
The 1978 World Junior Championship was a special moment in hockey history. This tournament represented the international coming out party for Wayne Gretzky, who shared the tournament scoring lead with 10 points. The only other player in the tournament to score 10 points was Mats Naslund.
Naslund was able to lead Sweden to a silver medal, and was named to the tournament’s first all star team. For the first time, the name Mats Naslund was being mentioned outside of his home country.
In 1978-79 Naslund made the move up to the Swedish Elite League, playing with Byrnas IF Gavle, a noted league powerhouse, where he scored 24 points in 36 league games. Mats was once again chosen to play for Sweden at the World Junior Championships. His 5 points in 6 games helped propel Sweden to the Bronze medal. Naslund was also asked to play for Sweden at that year’s World Championship’s, where his 7 points in 8 games helped Sweden win the Bronze medal.
For the first time, Naslund was named to Sweden’s World All Star team at the conclusion of the season, an honor he would receive for the next four years running.
Held on August 9th, 1979 at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, the 1979 NHL entry draft saw the Montreal Canadiens select Mats in the second round with the 37th overall selection.
These were different times, Mats was one of only six European players selected in the draft. Despite the success of Borje Salming, there were still lingering doubts about Swedish players, foremost their toughness and if they had the ability to survive in the NHL. Combined with his diminutive size there were serious doubts about Naslund’s ability to make the NHL, much less succeed in it.
This wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last time, that Mats Naslund’s status as a player would be thrown into doubt because of his size. When Mats had been selected to play for Sweden at the World Championship’s there had been criticism in many quarters. Like he had before, and like he would do in the future, Mats would silence the critics with his stellar play.
And even though he had been drafted by them the Canadiens were not without doubts themselves. Unlike today when a second round pick would be brought in for a rookie camp, and then be invited to the club’s training camp, Mats Naslund wasn’t invited to the Canadiens 1979 training camp.
Unbelievably, Mats Naslund would not be invited to the Montreal Canadiens training camp until 1982, a wait of three years.
The mystery behind these three years deepens when you look at Naslund’s accomplishments during these three lost seasons.
In 1979-80, Naslund recorded 37 points in 36 games, playing for Brynas IF Gayle. In the playoffs he led his team to the Swedish Elite League Championship, and was the recipient of Sweden’s Golden Puck Award as player of the year.
In the winter of 1980 Naslund was named to team Sweden for the upcoming Olympics held in Lake Placid, New York. He scored 10 points in 7 games, and was able to help Sweden capture the Bronze medal.
And still the Canadiens did not sign him to a contract.
In 1980-81 Naslund led the Swedish League in assists (25) and points (42), and led Sweden to a silver medal at the World Championships. In 1981-82 Naslund was able to repeat his point performance, win another Swedish Elite League Championship, and lead Sweden to a fourth place finish at the World Championships.
This three year gap between being drafted and signed by the Canadiens was more than just a professional hardship for Naslund. With a young family to support, financial problems started to seep into Naslund’s life. Even though he was arguably the top player in the Swedish Elite League, the salary was not a lucrative one. So in order to make ends meet during this three year period, Mats Naslund worked 30 to 40 hours a week as a carpenter, in addition to playing in the Swedish Elite League.
“I was upset because they (the Canadiens) didn’t bring me over,” Naslund recalled later. “It reached the point where I talked to my lawyer a little bit about it. I wanted them to give up my draft rights because I knew there was a few other teams who were interested. But they finally decided to sign me, and I was happy about that.”
Finally, three weeks before the 1982 World Championships, Mats Naslund became a Montreal Canadien, signing a three year contract with the team, and becoming the first European trained player to suit up for the Canadiens.
But why the three year wait between being drafted by the Canadiens, and being signed by the Canadiens?
Apparently, the Canadiens wanted to sign Naslund at the conclusion of the 1980 Olympics, but Mats demurred. Feeling he wasn’t yet ready to play in the NHL. In 1981 Mats was unable to participate for Sweden in the Canada Cup after tearing his ACL while playing badminton. The injury gave Montreal another reason to hold off on his signing.
Another reason that the Canadiens were slow to sign Naslund came from the conflicting reports that had been filed about Naslund from their own scouting department. One of the main factors in the initial drafting of Naslund had been the report filed by Habs super scout Ron Caron, who saw similarities between Naslund and two Canadiens greats, Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer.
However, while spending time in Europe, former Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden, did some advance scouting for the team and wrote conflicting reports about Naslund’s play. Dryden felt that Naslund wasn’t quick enough, and didn’t have the size to play in the NHL. Dryden did however; send back glowing reports to the Canadiens about Naslund’s competitiveness.
Once he reached Montreal, it didn’t take long for Mats Naslund to turn the skeptics into supporters.
In his very first game on Forum ice, a preseason game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Naslund wowed Montreal fans by recording a hat trick. On October 11th, 1982 Mats made his NHL debut against the Quebec Nordiques, two nights later against the New Jersey Devils he scored his first career goal and was named the game’s second star, and he scored again in his next game.
Mats Naslund didn’t stop scoring during his rookie season with the Canadiens. His 71 points set a record for Canadiens rookies (since tied by Kjell Dahlin), and was good for third on the team behind Guy Lafleur and Ryan Walter. Mats was also selected as the left winger on the NHL’s all rookie team.
Almost immediately upon his arrival, Naslund become one of the most popular Canadiens with the fans. A quick skater, he darted around the ice, always hustling, always giving his all. His work ethic was supplemented by a pair of fast hands that allowed him to indulge his creativeness with the puck. Mats was a clean player that never went beyond 19 penalty minutes in any season in Montreal. But most surprising and most telling was his durability, in his eight years with the Canadiens he only missed 23 games due to injury.
Mats Naslund was driven by a desire to prove that he could exceed in the NHL, and furthermore dispel the notions of Swedish players not being tough enough to survive the rigors of playing in the NHL.
And while Mats made the adjustment from the Swedish Elite League to the NHL with relative ease, there were concerns about his young family’s ability to make the transfer to living in Montreal. The families fears were eased considerably by Canadiens captain Bob Gainey and his wife Cathy. The Gainey’s helped Naslund and his family secure housing as well as a family doctor. This show of support allowed Mats to focus his energies on the task of playing hockey.
After the Canadiens first round playoff loss to the Buffalo Sabers, Naslund was once again able to suit up for team Sweden at the World Championship’s, leading them to a fourth place finish.
The 1983-84 season would be a turning point for Naslund. On October 28th, 1983 the Canadiens acquired center Bobby Smith from the Minnesota North Stars. The duo of Smith and Naslund became two-thirds of Montreal’s top offensive line for the rest of decade. Mats also achieved a significant personal milestone when he participated in his first NHL all star game in 1984.
After seeing his point total for the season dip to 64 during the season, Mats more than made up for it in the 1984 playoffs, leading the Canadiens in scoring with 14 points in 15 games, as the Canadiens came within two games of playing in the Stanley Cup finals. This playoff year would mark the first of four consecutive years that Naslund would lead the Canadiens in playoff scoring.
Mats Naslund had finally arrived.
On November 24th, 1984 Guy Lafleur played his last game for the Montreal Canadiens. The mantle of being the Canadiens top offensive player has officially been passed to Naslund.
Naslund responded by leading the Canadiens in points for the next four seasons. Despite his 42 goals, the season ended in disappointment for Mats as the Canadiens were eliminated by their hated rivals, the Quebec Nordiques in the Adams Division finals.
1985-86 however, would be a different story, and would represent the pinnacle of Mats Naslund’s hockey career. Mats scored a career high 43 goals. He set an NHL record for assists by a left winger (subsequently broken by Joe Juneau). His 110 points represented his career high, as he finished eighth in the NHL scoring race. Not only did his 110 points set the Canadiens single season record for points for a left wing, but he became the first hab to crack the 100 point barrier since Guy Lafleur in 1979-80, and the last. No Montreal Canadiens player has eclipsed 100 points since. Mats played in his second all star game and was named to the NHL’s second team all stars at the conclusion of the season (losing out to Michel Goulet, who had more goals, but less points than Naslund).
In addition to the personal achievements in 1985-86, Mats received a very prestigious honor when he was named as one of the Canadiens assistant captains.
Mats capped off his “dream year” by leading the Canadiens with 19 playoff points on his way to a Stanley Cup championship. On that warm May night in Calgary, Mats Naslund had achieved the ultimate, he was an NHL all star, a Stanley Cup champion, and one of the best hockey players in the world.
For the next three season’s Mats remained incredibly consistent, scoring 80 points in 1987, 83 points in 1988, and 84 points in 1989. And even though the Canadiens weren’t able to win another Stanley Cup it was through no fault of Naslund’s. In 44 playoff games from 1987 to 1989 Mats had 44 points. Mats played in his third all star game in 1988 and set a record that still stands by assisting on five goals. At the conclusion of the 1988 season Mats was rewarded with his gentlemanly play by receiving the Lady Byng trophy, becoming only the second Montreal Canadien to receive the honour (joining Buddy O’Connor who won the award in 1948).
The 1989-90 season proved to be Naslund’s most difficult in the NHL, his point total fell to only 41 points, as he battled numerous injuries.
At the conclusion of the 1989-90 season, and at the age of thirty Mats Naslund left the Canadiens and signed to play for HC Lugano of the Swiss League. In 42 games that he year he scored 31 goals to go with 70 points. Despite this, he was released by the team at the end of the season.
However, the news wasn’t all bad for Naslund, as he was able to suit up for Sweden at the 1991 World Championship’s. For Naslund it was his first time playing at the World’s since 1983 and he made the most of it as he led Sweden to a first place finish. That summer Naslund hoped to add the Canada Cup to his trophy mantle. After losing to Canada in the 1984 finals, and the USSR in the 1987 semi-finals, Naslund led Sweden to the semi finals in 1991, only to lose to Canada, the eventual champions.
In 1991-92 Naslund returned to the Swedish Elite League to play for Malmo, whom he led to league titles in 1992 and 1994. In 1992 for the second time Mats played for Sweden in the Olympics, where he contributed 6 points in 8 games as Sweden placed fifth. In 1994 he was chosen by Sweden to play in the Olympics for the third time, his 7 points in 8 games helped Sweden capture a long coveted gold medal.
At this moment, having become one of the select few players to win the Swedish Elite League championship, the Stanley Cup, the World Championship, and an Olympic gold medal, Mats Naslund decided to retire from professional hockey.
Naslund settled into retirement, working as a horse trainer and harness driver in Malmo, Sweden. He laced up the skates once again to play in an exhibition game against Wayne Gretzky’s traveling all star team in the fall of 1994. His performance in this game caught the attention of some scouts for the Boston Bruins, who offered Naslund a $400,000 contract with an option year, at the age of 35.
Before signing with the Bruins, Naslund made a courtesy call to the Canadiens who were unwilling to match Boston’s offer. “The money was a big incentive,” explained Naslund when he signed with the Bruins on February 21st, 1995. “It’s also a team that knows what they are doing. Boston is aware I haven’t played for a long time and therefore I’m not under great pressure.”
In 34 games with the Bruins he scored 22 points, but in the playoffs he was only able to record 1 point as the Bruins were defeated in the first round by the New Jersey Devils in five games.
At the end of the season, Mats Naslund quietly left hockey for the second time. This time the retirement was for good.
After quietly living in Sweden for many years, and coaching youth hockey, Mats Naslund reemerged as the general manager for Team Sweden at the 2006 Olympics. Proving that he still hadn’t lost his winning touch he guided Sweden to the gold medal.
Mats Naslund eight years spent in Montreal are a model of consistency, 617 games played, 612 total points, good for eleventh all time on the Canadiens all time scoring leaders. In 2005 Mats Naslund became the first player from the Montreal Canadiens enshrined in the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame.
On a personal note …
Growing up in the 1980’s watching the Canadiens, my friends and I would watch the television, hoping that when Montreal scored, Mats Naslund would be involved in the goal. We would eagerly await the moment where legendary Canadiens public address announcer Claude Mouton would announce the scoring play, just so we could hear him pronounce,
“Canadiens goal scored by number twenty six… Mats Nasluuuund!!!
When we all go outside and play road hockey, all of us would imagine ourselves as our favourite players. The kid who was the smallest, the shortest, would always be Mats Naslund.
Mats Naslund taught us to appreciate players that weren’t from Canada, he proved to us that heart was just as important as one’s size; he excited us every time he touched the puck, and above all he showed us all that he was one of the best hockey players in the world.