The idea of NHL teams playing games in Europe had been floated before, as far back as 1924 and again in 1932, but those plans failed to happen, mainly due to a lack of suitable hockey rinks. Other plans were hatched in 1935 and 1936, but never came to be.
Finally, in 1938, the British Ice Hockey Association and the French Ice Hockey Federation were able to come to an agreement for a series of nine games to be held in England and France. Preliminary plans for additional games in Belgium, Germany and Scotland did not materialize.
While the Red Wings had won the Stanley Cup in 1936 and 1937, they finished last in the American Division with a 12-25-11 record for 35 points, second worst in the NHL during the 1937-38 season.
Montreal, meanwhile, went 18-17-13 in the 48 game schedule, and their 49 points were good for third in the Canadian Division and a playoff spot. Montreal was paired with the Chicago Black Hawks, who squeaked into the playoffs, just two points ahead of the Red Wings. In their best-of-three series, Toe Blake had a hat trick to win Game 1 for Montreal, but Mike Karakas shut the Canadiens out in Game 2 to even the series. Despite a late Montreal goal in Game 3, Earl Seibert tied the game for Chicago who then won the series after 11:49 of overtime on March 26, 1938.
Ten days later, Detroit traveled to Montreal and then both teams made the trip to Sydney, Nova Scotia, where they played an exhibition game on April 7th, won by Montreal 3-2. On the next two nights, the teams played in Halifax in front of 5,000 fans, with the Canadiens taking the first game 6-5 in overtime on April 8 followed by the Red Wings dominating on April 9th by a score of 7-2.
The teams then boarded the RMS Ausonia for their trip to England, arriving on April 19th, where they were met with a high level of interest and news of heavy ticket sales.
The first game, on this date in 1938, took place in the London suburb of Earls Court in front of 8,000 interested spectators. At times during the game, Detroit head coach Jack Adams spoke to the crowd to explain the differences in the NHL rules and those of the English amateur league. Montreal goaltender Wilf Cude, a native of Wales, was singled out with a presentation of a wreath and an ovation. Regulation ended tied at 4-4 and then Blake scored the winning goal in overtime.
Two days later, on April 23rd, the teams met again in Brighton, 60 miles to the south. Montreal's Johnny Gagnon had a hat trick for the Canadiens, but Detroit came from behind twice in the third to force an overtime, which passed without a winner for an eventual 5-5 tie. During the first game in Brighton, two fights took place, the first between Marty Barry and Red Goupille and then Blake and Peter Bessone staged round two.
The teams then made the trip to France for three games in Paris, the first of which took place on April 25th. A fast and exciting game, the first professional hockey game in France, saw both Detroit's Hec Kilrea and Gagnon for Montreal each score a hat trick in a 10-8 win for Montreal.
There was excitement of a different kind of April 27th for the second game in France, when the Red Wings rallied with three goals in the third period to come from being down 3-1 to take their first win of the series 4-3.
The final game in Paris was on April 29th, a 7-5 win for the French Canadiens.
“The professional ice hockey players of the two teams in Paris are a fine lot of players. Next week the two teams are scheduled to play in London and the hockey enthusiasts of the big city will see the fastest competition game played by humans as it should be played. It is really thrilling to witness ice hockey such as we have seen played in Paris by the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings.” wrote sportswriter Sparrow Robertson of New York Herald Tribune.
On May 8th back in Brighton, Detroit won their second game of the tour, a 10-5 victory powered by a pair of goals by Don Young, Carl Liscombe and Mud Bruneteau, again with 8,500 on hand to witness the most lopsided game of the tour.
Oddly, it was back to Earls Court two days later on May 10th, rather than travel to a different, larger city in England, such as Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool. Blake starred with a hat trick, including the game winner in a 5-4 Canadiens win, as the swept all three games in London.
The final game of the nine was held on May 14th back in Brighton for the third time. Bruneteau and Barry each had a pair of goals for Detroit, who won 5-2 to finish unbeaten in Brighton with two wins and a tie. Overall, Montreal won 5, with Detroit taking 3 and one tie game.
After the game, Montreal head coach Cecil Hart said, "We've had a successful and enjoyable trip. The boys played wonderful hockey and I'm sure they've sold the professional game in a big way to the British and the French fans."
The teams made their way to Southampton and sailed home on the RMS Aurania. The head coaches both agreed the tour was a success and some players declared it the greatest experience of their lives. For their efforts, the players each received the princely sum of $250.
Hart later observed, "It was wonderful, simply marvelous. I can't get over it. Yes, I believe pro hockey is still five years off over there. They haven't got the rinks yet. But think of the opportunities with no traveling expenses and such thickly populated areas. We packed them in everywhere. The last game we played over there, we turned away between 3,000 and 4,000 fans. And that with very little publicity."
Despite the rave reviews for the tour, it would take until 1959 for the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers to make the second tour a reality, that being a 23 game marathon of games in England, Switzerland, France, Belgium, West Germany and finally Austria.
It would take another 17 years for two NHL teams to meet outside of North America, this time in Japan, and the league would not return to Europe for 21 years.