October 26, 2015
Like every other position, the Montreal Canadiens have had a lot of great left wingers over their long and glorious history. Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey, Dickie Moore, Toe Blake, Aurele Joliat, Bert Olmstead, and Frank Mahovlich are all Hall of Fame LWs.
But did you know the record for most points in one season by a Montreal LW is held by Mats Naslund, the very first Montreal player from overseas?
"Le Petit Viking" was born and grew up in Timra, a small city in the northern parts of Sweden. Mats Naslund was an extremely talented player in his early years and played against 11-year olds as a 6-year old. He made his first impact when he led Sweden to a Gold medal in the European Junior Championships in 1977 and later that year was voted as the best Swedish junior player.
In 1978 he left his longtime club Timra to play for the top club Brynas. A year later Mats was selected to play in the 1979 World championships. At first the trainer's selection of Mats was heavily criticized by media and hockey people in Sweden, as they all claimed that he was to small to compete in international play among seniors.
He quickly silenced the critics when he led the Swedish team in goals (5) and points (7). His fine play caught the eye of Montreal Canadiens scouts. A lot of Canadian journalists were curious who this little fellow was. Montreal selected Mats with their 2nd choice, 37th overall despite the fact that he only was 5'7" and 160lbs.
Mats didn't disappoint the scouts and had a fine season in the Swedish league as well as a 10 point performance in the 1980 Olympics. After the Olympic games Montreal wanted to sign Mats, but he declined the offer because he didn't feel ready. During the next season (1980-81) he led the Swedish league in assists (25) and points (42).
In 1981 he tore his ACL while playing badminton and missed the 1981 Canada Cup. His injury made Montreal back off for a while in their pursuit of his signature. But just three weeks prior to the 1982 World championships Mats signed a 3 year contract with Montreal, becoming the first ever European trained player in Canadiens 73 year history.
He was an instant hit with the Forum fans, scoring three goals in his first pre-season game (vs Philadelphia). From that moment on he was "Le Petit Viking," the little Viking. Mats sat out the first three games of his rookie season, but when Rejean Houle got injured, Mats got his NHL debut which came against the rivals Quebec Nordiques on Oct.11,1982. Two nights later Mats buried a shot behind New Jersey's goalie Lindsay Middlebrook for his 1st career NHL goal. He was also the game's 2nd star. Mats also scored in his 3rd game vs NY Rangers and clicked immediately with his line mates Mario Tremblay and Pierre Mondou.
Mats best season in the NHL was undoubtedly the 1985-86 season when he scored 110 points (43 goals + 67 assists) and was a 2nd All-Star left wing. The crowning moment was the Cup win later that season where he scored 19 points, including 8 goals, in the playoffs and was a key component for Montreal. Mats never won another Cup although he had a splendid playoff the following season, scoring 22 points.
During his career Mats earned a reputation as a true playoff warrior, scoring a very respectable 92 points (35 goals + 57 assists) in 102 playoff games. By doing so he won over a lot of fans, and remains one of the most popular European players in Canada. Mats strongest asset was undoubtedly his speed and acceleration, plus a great change of pace ability. He had good hands and took passes excellently while in full stride. Despite his small size he could absorb and give a check as good as anyone. He wasn't a true superstar player but an above average player who took over Guy Lafleur's role as Montreal's dynamic offensive leader and fan favorite. The Montreal Forum applauded his efforts every time announcer Claude Mouton announced a goal by "number 26, numéro vingt six . . . Matsss....Nasluuuund."
The winner of the 1988 Lady Byng Trophy played in Montreal until 1990 before deciding to return back to Europe. He spend the 1990-91 season in Lugano, Switzerland. Despite scoring 31 goals and 70 points in 42 games. After the season was over he rejoined the Swedish national team for a world championship gold medal. After his Swiss adventure he returned back to Sweden where he joined Malmo and helped them win two titles in three years (1992 and 1994).
In 1994 Mats won the Olympic Gold and shared the lead in the tournament with 7 assists. During the lockout season in 1994-95 Mats attempted a comeback in the NHL, jumping on a lucrative deal offered to him by Boston and played 34 games. The aging Naslund would score 8 goals and 22 points.
Mats finished his NHL career with 634 points (251 goals + 383 assists) in 651 games. He also had 280 points (123 goals + 157 assists) in 294 games in the Swedish Elite League. Mats holds the distinction of being one of very few Swedish players to have won the Swedish league championship, an Olympic Gold, a World championship and a Stanley Cup.
For hockey fans of my generation, it was guys like Mats Naslund who endeared European hockey players to Canadian hockey fans. In my books he was one heck of a hockey player regardless where he was born.