Michel Therrien may have already secured the award for best quip of the season when he mused, in almost Vaudevillian fashion, “Galchenyuk and Radulov communicate well on the bench…at least I think they do. I don’t understand”.
He’ll be here all week, folks. (Like it or not.)
The Habs’ Russian-speaking clique, which also includes Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin, has been the subject of much discussion, most recently when captain Max Pacioretty cited Alexander Radulov as the catalyst for his line’s success. The four flashy Russians’ off-ice bond is endearing and their on-ice brilliance has been exhilarating. They are a huge part of the story the 2016-17 Montreal Canadiens are in the midst of writing.
In many ways, the emergence of this Russian core is one that has been a long-time coming for the Canadiens. The ties run deep between Russia, the former Soviet Union and Le Club de Hockey Canadien.
It all really began in earnest with a friendly exhibition tournament in the autumn of 1972. Many Canadiens figured prominently in that series, from the goal crease onward. Ken Dryden, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Yvan Cournoyer, and the Mahovlich brothers helped to construct one of the greatest hockey narratives ever written. A Cold War that was so much more than just a brilliant pun, the Summit Series gave the world its’ truest glimpse of the calibre of skilled hockey that was being played on the other side of the proverbial pond. The Montreal Canadiens of the 1970’s were the Flyingest of Frenchmen and were therefore VERY intrigued by the prospect of Soviet-style hockey.
The similarities between the Canadiens and the Russian style of play, were cemented in the famous New Year’s Eve game of 1975, in which the Canadiens hosted the Russian Red Army squad – a collection of the country’s best players – on Montreal Forum ice. The game featured a thrilling display of skill and ended in a 3-3 tie, thanks largely to the sensation Soviet netminder, Vladislav Tretiak. So impressed were the Habs with the Soviet stopper, that one of Serge Savard’s first moves upon being named GM of the Canadiens, was to select Tretiak with his 7th round selection in the 1983 NHL entry draft. The move was futile, as the ‘Red Line’ between Soviet hockey and the NHL had yet to be breached.
That moment would come in earnest just prior to the 1988-89 season, in a momentous defection of Soviet players led largely by legendary defenceman Viacheslav Fetisov. Though Fetisov would go on to forge his Hall of Fame career with the Devils and Red Wings, he had been originally drafted in 1978, by the Montreal Canadiens – eleven years prior to Fetisov’s NHL debut. The Habs had experienced a taste of Russian hockey and they wanted more.
The Canadiens’ obsession with these intriguing Russian players made perfect sense. Largely regarded as the most skilled team of the era, the Habs of the seventies saw that a new breed of elite skill was on the horizon and it seemed just that such hockey artistry should end up in Montreal. The respect was mutual, which was best evidenced when iconic Russian National Team coach Viktor Tikhonov famously called Canadiens’ Hall of Famer Bob Gainey the greatest all-around player in the world.
Despite the Canadiens’ great efforts to bring down the iron curtain, none of the early defectors would end up with the Habs. Exciting players like Mogilny, Fedorov, and Bure would go on to dazzle their way into the history books, playing the kind of hockey that was once the Hallmark of the Habs; but they would do so while wearing competitors’ sweaters.
A handful of players have tantalized the Canadiens’ ravenous Russian hunger along the way, from the lovable waterbug Oleg Petrov to l’Artiste himself, Alex Kovalev.
It now feels as though the once-mysterious brilliance of Russian hockey is finally finding a meaningful home in Montreal, in 2016. It begins with the team’s longest-serving player, Andrei Markov and continues with its brightest young star, Alex Galchenyuk – who is American-born, but speaks the language and learned the game while living in Russia.
Following the 1972 Summit Series, the Montreal Canadiens became intent on being the first to bring Russian talent to North American ice. Instead, it has taken 34 years for their search to bear fruit, in earnest. Now, the roster finally boasts a significant Russian contingent and it doesn’t take more than a couple of Alex Radulov dangles or Alexei Emelin pile-drivers to realize how well the formerly-Soviet style suits the Montreal faithful’s palate.
Galchenyuk and Radulov should certainly remain a part of the team’s future core and with the likes of Nikita Scherbak and the highly-touted Mikhail Sergachev on the way, it looks as though the Russian flavour is a taste Habs fans should get used to enjoying.
Michel Therrien might want to invest in a Rosetta Stone.