October 28, 2010

Interview With Todd Denault, Author Of The Greatest Game

Today I have the great opportunity to talk pucks and books with Todd Denault, author of The Greatest Game: The Montreal Canadiens, the Red Army, and the Night That Saved Hockey.

Buy The Book: Amazon.ca - Chapters - Amazon.com - E-Book

On the surface, this game appears to be a lopsided contest where Montreal was unfortunate not win yet no winner was decided. Why is this game considered by so many to be the greatest game ever played?

There are a few answers to that question.

The December 31, 1975 game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Central Red Army was eagerly anticipated. Keep in mind that the Summit Series was only three years in the past at that point and that this game represented the first encounter between the Russians and the stars of the NHL since that epic encounter. This game was held at a pivotal time in the history of the sport. In fact, Canadian hockey was under siege on two separate fronts. Facing the threat presented by Soviet hockey, there were many in Canada who had begun to question the state of our game. In fact, there were some who boldly pronounced that hockey as practiced by the Soviets represented the way forward. At the same time, the sport, especially in North America, was undergoing a civil war as the emergence of the Philadelphia Flyers saw an increase in both on-ice violence and mayhem that saw size and brawn overtake speed and skill as two of the sport’s most valuable attributes.

I think it’s also important to remember in that Super Series that the Canadiens were the lone team from Canada represented. This obviously placed a higher importance on the game within this country. In speaking to all those involved, including those who watched on television it was an unforgettable event. In fact, the December 31, 1975 game between the Red Army and the Canadiens was the most watched hockey game in Canada since the concluding game of the 1972 Summit Series.

In bestowing the title “the Greatest Game” I think that one has to remember how subjective a title is. Of course, it always makes for a lively discussion and debate which can never have a definitive answer. Yet in the thirty-five years since the game was played this particular game has stood as the standard against which all other games have traditionally been measured, and has remained prominent in our collective hockey consciousness. For example, in the days leading up to this year’s Olympics in Vancouver I read a preview of the upcoming hockey tournament. In discussing the heavy expectations facing the Canadian Men’s Hockey Team, the writer compared it with the pressure that the Canadiens had to endure on the night of December 31, 1975. I think that helps to explain just how important that game was at the time and remains today.

With all due apologies to the Philadelphia Flyers, this was a game between two teams that may have been the most highly skilled in the world, definitely the most successful, if not the outright best, and above all two teams that had never met on the ice. Factor in that the Cold War was at its height and you suddenly have a game that in many ways transcends the sport and creates a whole new level of anticipation. Despite all the hype, the game arguably exceeded all of the expectations. The enthusiasm for the game led to an electric atmosphere that night at the Montreal Forum in which the crowd (both in the Forum and I’m sure for those glued to their television sets at home) endured sixty minutes in which their emotions were laid bare. Watching the game now one can’t help but get a sense of the general nervousness amidst the crowd when the puck was dropped, followed by overwhelming delirium when the Canadiens take the lead, to a throng gripped by fear in the game’s closing moments when the score was tied at three. The pace of the game throughout was extremely fast, whistles were a rarity, and penalties were few. The game was free of the violence that was plaguing the sport at the time, and showcased the sport at its most beautiful.

Even now, the general consensus is that the Canadiens deserved to win as opposed to settling for the tie. There is no doubt that Montreal held a wide territorial advantage over the course of the game and Red Fisher, the dean of all hockey writers, told me that in all of his years covering the Canadiens that on that particular night the team – with the exception of the goaltender – played at the highest level he has ever seen.

Of course, the reason the game ended in a tie was the goaltending. Dryden had a well chronicled off-night whereas Tretiak, in the words of Scotty Bowman “played as good a game in goal as I’ve ever seen.” And there is the crux of what makes this game so special – one of the greatest team’s in hockey history at their very best against one of the greatest goalies at his very best in a one game encounter. On the other side of the ledger you have a Red Army team at it’s most dangerous – over the course of the game the Red Army had one 2-on-1 break and one 3-on-2 break – and they scored on both against a goaltender renowned for his calm and composure who on this one night struggled with both. Despite spending the majority of the game in their own end there is a palpable sense of danger and oncoming dread from both the crowd and the announcers every time the Red Army touched the puck.

The “Greatest Game” was a spectacle that forced you to watch every minute, out of fear that you would miss a moment of the unfolding drama that was being played out on the ice. It was a game of the highest drama and skill that left an indelible mark on the history of hockey.

Ultimately this was an exhibition game in the middle of a long NHL season. How seriously did Montreal's players take this game?

The 1975-76 Montreal Canadiens were a team on a mission that season. It was a trek that began in the pre-season with a pair of exhibition games against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers and continued throughout. One of the things that made that particular Montreal team so special was that there was no such thing as an off-night. Each and every game they played represented a test of their greatness.

The game with the Red Army was no different in that respect but obviously a game against the Washington Capitals didn’t have the political, cultural, and social overtones that permeated a game against the Red Army. There were six players on the Canadiens that had also played with Team Canada in 1972 and they, along with the media spotlight, helped to convey to their teammates the importance and uniqueness of this game. For many of the other players this game represented their first and only time playing the Russians. In an interview for the book Murray Wilson told me that he had never felt so patriotic in his career and that for him, this game represented the only time that he represented his country – that on the night the players were not only playing for the Montreal Canadiens, but the province of Quebec, and ultimately, Canada.

Scotty Bowman informed me that he felt the New Year’s Eve game marked a real turning point for the Canadiens. In his opinion, after that game the team felt a whole new level of confidence that they carried with them from that point forward. Some of the players confided to me that in their opinion this particular game made them feel as if they had a special team, even a great team.

Is there one player who really stood out as the star of this game?

Vladislav Tretiak was undoubtedly the first star of the game and it would be hard to pinpoint a game in which he ever played better. His performance has been rightfully regarded as one of the greatest goaltending displays ever seen. Without him the final score may have been eight, maybe even nine-three and then you and I aren’t talking about this book. More than anything it is Tretiak’s performance that helps elevate this game to it’s now legendary status.

The game is simply known as the New Year's Eve classic. Did the fact that it was New Year's Eve add any mystique at the time?

The date of the game certainly brought the contest more attention. Ralph Mellanby, who produced the game for CBC told me that in the days leading up to the game he had a difficult time booking a restaurant for his traditional New Year’s Eve dinner. Calling out to various Montreal establishments he was informed that they were closing on December 31st due to the game. On a whim, he then phoned some of his favourite places in Toronto only to discover the same predicament.

For three hours it seems that everyone in Canada and in the Soviet Union was glued to their television sets. A day or two after the game Mellanby received a phone call from a government friend who informed him that during the three hours the game was on television incidents of crime in the country were down fifty-percent.

Such is the importance of the date that there were three subsequent games held on New Year’s between the Russians and the Canadiens in 1979, 1982, and 1985. And such is the mystique of the game that CBC has now rebroadcast the game a couple of times in recent years on New Year’s Eve night.

The book actually spends a lot of time looking back over the previous 20 years, covering the history of Soviet hockey and comparing that to the NHL and the Montreal Canadiens. Why the lengthy back story?

The road to the New Year’s Eve game begins on March 7, 1954 when the Soviet Union captured its first gold medal at the World Hockey Championships held in Stockholm, Sweden – at the expense of the East York Lyndhursts, who represented Canada. The subsequent outcry throughout the country was comparable to the reaction that followed Canada’s loss in the first game of the Summit Series almost two decades later. Amidst the outrage in 1954, Conn Smythe, then the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs volunteered to take his team to Moscow “to salvage Canada’s pride.” Of course, this didn’t happen, but it planted the seed of having the Soviets face-off against the best players that Canada had to offer. These players of course resided in the NHL.

In the intervening years the talk of a game between the Russians and the Montreal Canadiens and/or the Toronto Maple Leafs only grew. In the late-sixties Anatoly Tarasov, the Soviet coach openly challenged the Canadiens and/or the Leafs to a game. In the aftermath of the Summit Series, the clamor for a game, especially between the Russians and the Montreal Canadiens only grew more intense.

From my own point of view, I wanted to describe for the reader how these two teams and the players arrived at the evening of December 31, 1975.

Very interestingly, your book uses four vantage points to parallel Soviet hockey and the Montreal Canadiens - the two builders, Anatoly Tarasov and Sam Pollock, and the two goaltenders, Vladislav Tretiak and Ken Dryden. Why did you focus on these four figures?

It is impossible to tell the story of hockey in the Soviet Union without writing about Anatoly Tarasov. Likewise the story of the Montreal Canadiens in this particular period is very closely intertwined with Sam Pollock.

When it comes to the goaltenders, I thought it was interesting to see how two different players, born in two different countries, widely separated by both geography and philosophy, achieved prominence as the two best goaltenders of their time. I also found it interesting how many times Dryden and Tretiak’s path’s crossed before the New Year’s Eve game and how one player’s highs often contrasted with the other’s lowest lows.

For example in the Summit Series, Tretiak’s best games came here in Canada and after the four games he was clearly the star of the series. On the flipside it would be hard to find a player who had been more disappointing than Dryden. In fact, after the fourth game in Vancouver, Dryden thought his on-ice part in the series was over. Of course, as we all know, a resurgent Dryden bested a tired and weakened Tretiak in game six and eight in Moscow as Canada emerged victorious.

After finishing the Jacques Plante biography I had originally wanted to stay away from goaltenders but in the early stages of my newspaper research I stumbled across an exhibition tour that was held in various Canadian cities featuring the Russian National Team against the Canadian National Team. On December 20, 1969 in Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum the Russian’s defeated the Canadian team 9-3. But what really piqued my interest was when I looked at the box score and scanned down to the goaltenders and saw the names Tretiak and Dryden.

Although they came from very different worlds, were there any common traits between Tarasov and Pollock?

I think that each man was gifted with an extraordinarily fertile mind. Both men were not the type to rest on their laurels or to grow complacent. Each man always seemed to be a step ahead of their contemporaries. Tarasov’s legacy is that he built from the ground up a hockey program that achieved the unthinkable - challenging Canada’s hockey supremacy. Sam Pollock was responsible for assembling what many feel is the greatest team in the history of the NHL. In the end, both men left an unmistakable imprint on the sport of hockey.

Why did Ken Dryden have so much trouble playing the Russians?

There is no doubt that Dryden shouldered much of the blame for the tie against the Red Army on December 31, 1975. In explaining his performance that night I think it’s important to remember just how little he had to do in terms of action. After all, the Red Army does not register a single shot on net in the first ten minutes of a game. As a result of these long periods of inaction I don’t think that Dryden ever got into a comfortable place in that particular game. Keep in mind that the Soviet strategy in those days was to not waste shots, stressing quality over quantity, and as a matter of fact the Red Army was widely outshot in each of the four games they played in the Super Series. Scotty Bowman shared with me that he believes that games like this are the toughest ones for goalies, stressing how difficult it is for the goaltender to keep himself mentally engaged for extended periods of idleness. In this game, I don’t think Dryden was ever able to subjugate his nerves. Perhaps a few early chances or even shots would have had the opposite effect on the usually calmest of all goaltenders. When one watches the tape one can’t help but notice in the final minutes how unnerved he looks on the ice.

Now on the first goal Dryden didn’t have much of a chance. Interestingly enough on the Red Army’s second and third goals he manages to get his glove on the puck, before it trickles through the webbing and barely inches over the goal line. Such is the fine line separating a win from a loss, or in this case a tie.

How many of those 1970’s Soviet stars do you think could have thrived in the NHL had they had the chance to play?

In light of the current success of many Russian players in today’s NHL I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that many of those on that Red Army team would have thrived in the NHL of the seventies. In fact I think it’s safe to say that a few of them, including Tretiak, would have been at an elite level in the NHL.

How did this one particular game influence hockey's evolution - in both Russia and Canada - over the following years?

I think this game went a long way towards redeeming hockey in this country. On that unforgettable evening the Canadiens conclusively proved that they were the equal of the Red Army when it came to the twin virtues of skill and speed. Furthermore in the aftermath of this game the Canadiens increasingly came to be seen by many as the team that would save hockey from the clutches of the Philadelphia Flyers, a.k.a. the Broad Street Bullies. Four months later the Canadiens did just that by sweeping the Flyers aside in the 1976 Stanley Cup Finals.

This was a major turning point in the sport’s history, it brought to a sudden end an era where brawn and brutality were starting to eclipse the aforementioned virtues of skill and speed as the prime ingredients for hockey success. From that point forward the Stanley Cup would always be contested by the teams with the most talent, not the most physically intimidating.

In that respect the Canadiens set the template for those who followed and it all began on December 31, 1975. In the thirty-five years since the best teams in hockey have intimidated with their talent and not their fists. Without the Canadiens of the seventies it’s hard to imagine the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s, or the Pittsburgh Penguins of the 1990’s having the success they did.

I think the game also set the stage for the avalanche of international hockey exhibitions that followed. Such was the high level of play that evening that hockey fans understandably craved and demanded more of the same.

This game is from another era, from a very foreign world compared to where we are now today. Why does this particular game still resonate with so many people today?

I think for many that games serves as a touchstone in their lives, especially when it comes to hockey. There are very few games where people spend the days, months, and even years after a game discussing the intricacies of what they witnessed. There was a high sense of anticipation, an excitement for that game and it delivered beyond anybody’s expectations. In the thirty-five years since there are very few hockey games that can claim to have done the same. I also think that it’s a tribute to the men who played in the game, Tretiak and Dryden, Guy Lafleur and Valeri Kharlamov, etc… giants of their day who have since passed into legend.

Do Russian hockey fans treat this game with the same historical importance as Canadians do?

As a side note, unlike the first four games of the Summit Series which were broadcast in the Soviet Union on a tape-delay the New Year’s Eve game was the first game held in Canada that was broadcast live. Of all the teams in the NHL the Montreal Canadiens held a certain mystique that the Russian populace identified with before and even more so after this game.

In the course of my research I found an interesting quote from Boris Mikhailov who could still, after all these years, rhyme off the players on the Montreal roster. I think that helps speak to how this game is remembered by those in Russia.

Let me ask the expert - Best of seven series, 1976 Montreal vs. 1976 CSKA Moscow. Stanley Cup on the line. Who wins?

I’m not sure that Tretiak could maintain such a high level of play over the course of a seven-game series. On the flipside I’m also equally skeptical that Dryden could play that poorly over the course of a series. But I think the downfall for the Red Army and the reason I would pick the Canadiens in a best-of-seven series is that on December 31, 1975 the Red Army only played with three lines while the Canadiens consistently rolled four. As a result I think that Montreal would exert their will and talent on the Red Army, eventually wearing them down as a series progressed.

Todd Denault is the author of The Greatest Game: The Montreal Canadiens, the Red Army, and the Night That Saved Hockey.

Buy The Book: Amazon.ca - Chapters - Amazon.com - E-Book


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