Monday, 27 August 2012

TBC: The Greatest Game

It's been a busy summer, and HBIC has certainly seen the frequency of contributions to Teebz's Book Club fall off a little. However, the quality of books that TBC is reading should be giving you a lot to look for at your local libraries and bookstores. Today, TBC is proud to present a fascinating book in The Greatest Game, written by Todd Denault and published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. There have been lists produced, even recently, about events that changed the sport of hockey, but one game in 1975 actually changed the NHL in ways that no one could have predicted. On New Year's Eve, the Montreal Canadiens played host to the Central Red Army team from the Soviet Union, and the game would have a major impact on how hockey was played after that night. Mr. Denault's recounting of that evening's events, the events that caused the game to happen, and the aftermath is all told in The Greatest Game.

A member of the Society for International Hockey Research, Todd Denault is a freelance writer who has had his work featured in numerous online and print publications. A graduate of Carleton University and Lakehead University, Todd resides in Cobourg, Ontario today. He also wrote Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey which was reviewed here on HBIC.

Mr. Denault does a fantastic job at setting the stage in terms of chronicling the rise of both the Canadiens and the Red Army team. He paints a picture of Canada's hockey dominance in the early World Championships, but shows how the Soviets began changing their training, tactics, and philosophies to become the most dominant amateur team on the planet by the 1960s. At the same time, the Montreal Canadiens were being heralded as the best professional team in hockey history thanks to their repeated and often-consecutive Stanley Cup wins.

The 1972 Summit Series was an eye-opening experience for both teams as the Soviet National Team and the Canadian NHL players put on a dazzling show through eight games. But there was worry on Canadian soil as the Soviets nearly escaped the series as the winners, and Canadian hockey ideology was in serious jeopardy. The 1974 Series against the WHA teams didn't do anything but sink Canada lower as the game Canada claimed to have invented looked like it may have been perfected by the Soviet Union.

The detail that Mr. Denault put into the first few chapters of The Greatest Game is simply incredible. You honestly get a feeling of what Canada must have been thinking as the Soviet Union routinely captured gold medals at various tournaments over the Canadian squads sent to beat them. Mr. Denault has done a remarkable job in his writing to allow the reader to follow the ups and downs of the Canadian teams that won and lost in the 1950s and 1960s against the Soviet Union.

After the Red Army team had dispatched an inferior WHA team, they set their sights on playing the greatest professional team that any league offered in the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens had been rebuilding for their own battle against the newly-crowned champions in the Philadelphia Flyers as the Flyers had redefined hockey through intimidation and physicality in the mid-1970s. The Canadiens, once too small to compete with the Flyers, were now better prepared for the battle with the Flyers, but their schedule in 1975 put the Red Army team directly in their path before the Canadiens could try to recapture the Stanley Cup.

The Red Army team was well-known to the Canadian fans who were lucky enough to be in the stands or able to watch the game on television. Most of these players were the same players that scared the country in the 1972 Summit Series - Kharlamov, Tretiak, Mikhailov, Petrov - and they were certainly to be feared in 1975 after hammering the New York Rangers by a 7-3 score. The showdown between the NHL's best team in the 1975 campaign and the world's best amateur squad would be a showdown of ideologies, gamesmanship, and skill.

The game itself would be bigger than the Stanley Cup Final. This was Canada's team against the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union. The maple leaf versus the sickle and hammer. The red-and-white squaring off against the big red machine. And because it was New Year's Eve, the fans were dressed to the nines for the game, bringing with them an air of classiness. Even Harold Ballard, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, would be in the crowd for the big game.
"It's the first time in 54 years that I'll pull for the Canadiens to win," announced Ballard, never lacking for words in the presence of a microphone.
Mr. Denault's descriptions of the game and the added insight from the players and coaches involved in the game made for some incredible writing, and he is able to paint a picture in the mind of the reader of exactly what is happening on the ice. Mr. Denault has written an exceptional book that really covers two decades of what some may say was the greatest period in hockey ever, and reading his story kept me glued to the pages. Because of his excellent work in painting the picture of how hockey changed before, during, and after the game, The Greatest Game absolutely deserves the Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval!

While some may argue that the 1972 Summit Series was the best event to happen in hockey, I'd be willing to make an argument for December 31, 1975 after reading Mr. Denault's book. The score of that game wasn't as important as the result of that game, and that result can still be felt today when two evenly-matched, star-studded teams play hockey for pride and for country over anything else.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

TedNes said...

I sure remember that New Years parents and their friends upstairs playing Euchre, my buddy and I clowning around in the basement with "THAT HOCKEY GAME" on......I was too young to really remember the 72 Summit Series, but I sure remember the Red Army invading the Forum that night......