Given the history of the Montréal Canadiens and the sheer number of great players and Hockey Hall of Famers who have worn the CH, it might be very easy to overlook some of the team’s less legendary names, including those who aren’t immediately connected with the franchise. This, unfortunately, includes the first European to put on the Canadiens sweater and one of the most consistent players of the 1980s, the “Petit Viking” (“Little Viking”) Mats Näslund.
Proving His Worth
Before arriving in the NHL, Näslund was already proving his abilities on the international stage with Team Sweden and domestically with Brynås IF. In his first season in the Swedish Elite League, he scored 24 points in 36 games, and played in two consecutive IIHF World Junior Championships, and shared the tournament scoring record with Wayne Gretzky in 1978 before capturing a bronze medal the following year. He led the Swedish League in assists and points in 1981-82 and won another medal at the World Championships, this time silver.
From Sweden with Love
Näslund was the first European to play for Montréal in an era when European players were largely overshadowed by their North American counterparts. However, despite his diminutive stature, his ability to quickly adapt to the North American game, his stoic demeanour, and his work ethic endeared him to the Montréal faithful and he was eventually bestowed the role of alternate captain, sharing the “A” with defenseman Larry “Big Bird” Robinson and winger Mario Tremblay.
Drafted 37th overall in 1979, Näslund arrived in Montréal in 1981-82 and found himself on a team peppered with stars, including Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, and Mario Tremblay. Despite the established star power of the ’80s Habs, Näslund nevertheless quickly became a beloved figure due to his offensive prowess. His scoring ability manifested itself best in 1985-86, when he registered 43 goals and 67 assists for a total of 110 points. His 110 points helped the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup championship over the Calgary Flames — their first title since 1979.
A Gentleman Among Ruffians
Näslund’s scoring touch wasn’t the only talent that he was recognized for. He received the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy as the league’s most gentlemanly player in 1987-88, finishing with a minuscule 14 penalty minutes (PIM). In his entire NHL career, Näslund never logged more than 19 PIM in a single season. He became just the second Canadien to win the award, and the first since Buddy O’Connor in 1948. His sportsmanlike conduct was a welcome contrast to the play of Canadiens enforcer Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, and foreshadowed the transition from grit and toughness to speed, skill, and finesse.
Näslund became a model of consistency in his eight seasons with Montréal before he left the Habs in 1989-90 to play for HC Lugano in Switzerland. In his only season in Switzerland, he potted 31 goals and 29 assists for 70 points. He played for Sweden again at the World Championships in 1990 and earned a gold medal. After two more seasons in Sweden, he was tapped for their men’s hockey team for the 1992 Olympic Games in France.
Related: Montreal Canadiens’ 50-Goal Scorers
Näslund quietly retired in 1992, but came back to the NHL for one season with the Boston Bruins in 1995. In his true fashion, he ensured that he made a call to the Canadiens front office before inking his one-year deal with Boston.
Although often not mentioned among the great Canadiens players like Lafleur, Jean Béliveau, Maurice Richard, and Jacques Plante, Näslund still managed to make an impact and gave many fans coming of age the 1980s a star player to pick as their favourite. He paved the way for generations of European players to thrive in the NHL and can be counted as one of the pioneers of the league; he showed the league that stature is always second to skill, and as Major League Baseball pitcher Marcus Stroman says, “height doesn’t measure heart.”
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.