I could hardly wait for that New Year’s Eve of 1975 when the Russian Red Army team would show up at the Forum to play my team. I had been mesmorized by the events of the 1972 Summit Series, and we had seen what this far-away power could do. But this was going to be different. This time the foreigners would have to play the best team in the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens, with players like Lafleur, Dryden, Robinson and Cournoyer ready to strut their stuff. And this time, unlike 1972, Habs Ken Dryden, Yvon Cournoyer, Serge Savard, the Mahovlich boys, and Guy Lapointe, who all played in that historic series, would know what to expect.
I watched the game, which ended in a 3-3 tie, in a highrise apartment in Ottawa with friends, and although they didn’t win, I was proud of the Habs. They dominated this game, outshot the Russians 38-13, and it was only because of goalie Vladislav Tretiak that the Soviets were able to keep it close.
And I knew one thing. That I had just witnessed the greatest game I’d ever seen.
Three days later, on January 3, 1976, a column written by John Robertson apppeared in the Montreal Gazette, and I clipped it out and saved it. It’s an elequent overview of what transpired that night, and I’d like to share it with you.
It’s called “Torrid Tie Tempts Taste Of Things To Come.”
“I had picked the Canadiens to win and, like most of you, I suffered the agonies of the damned when big Tretiak chose this of all nights to come up with the most magnificent display of clutch goaltending these eyes have ever seen.
But as the game wound down to the closing minutes and I sat bathed in clammy sweat with my heart pounding like a jackhammer inside my shirt, I suddenly started dreading that either side would score.
A last minute-minute goal would have meant that there had to be a loser and somehow that would have spoiled it all……..either for the valiant Tretiak or for a Canadiens squad which left me limp with admiration for the way they devastated the myth that the Russians are invincible.
Had either side won, there would be less reason for a rematch and for purely selfish reasons I didn’t want the issue of which side was better clearly settled in just one game.
A rematch? Hell, yes! Let’s make it a best-of-seven, or a best-of-eleven. That was just the appetizer! Let’s bring on the main course and keep filling our plates until we burst with ecstacy because no other team can bring out the best in the Canadiens like the Russian’s did on New Year’s Eve and that’s what hockey’s all about, isn’t it?
Spare me those bleats that the Russians were lucky, that the Canadiens should have won by seven or eight goals, that it was no contest except on the scoreboard.
The scoreboard doesn’t lie.
And any team that can survive that kind of a performance by the Canadiens, claw back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits and come within a goalpost of beating them deserves the same share of admiration we bestow upon the home club.
The beautiful aspect of the game is that it raised more questions in our mind than it supplied answers.
On one hand we saw a Russian team dominated territorially as it had never been in the last decade of international hockey. On the other hand, nobody has beaten them yet on this eight-game tour and if the Canadiens couldn’t do it, are Boston or Philadelphia capable of playing even better?
Lest we forget, the Russians have compiled a rather remarkable record in their jousts with Team Canada ’72, Team Canada ’74, and in this series. In 19 games they’be been beaten only five times.
But even these figures are by no means conclusive because of the variety of opposition they have played. The WHA All-Stars were no better than a good NHL team and even at that they were better than the Rangers or the Penguins.
So nothing has been resolved.
And I kind of hope that it never will be. It’s no disgrace for either side to lose any one game or any one series. The thing all good hockey fans should dread is the day either ourselves or the Russians become so clearly superior the outcome will be a foregone conclusion.
From a fan standpoint in both countries, NHL-Russian confrontations are like a visit to hockey heaven. Too much expansion has reduced most of the NHL season to a big yawn and the Russians have so dominated the World Hockey Championships they’ve run out of meaningful opposition.
A lot of myths have been destroyed since that epic confrontation in 1972 – the first one being that the Russians weren’t in the same class as the NHL.
The second myth which the Canadiens substantially destroyed in one brilliant evening was that superior training methods and rigid discipline had bred a brand of Russian hockey supermen who could beat us on conditioning alone.
The Canadiens proved that, with maximum effort, a club of their calibre in mid-season form can match the Russians stride for stride and thoroughly outplay them at their own game of firewagon hockey.
The most touching aspect of the New Year’s Eve game was the tremendous ovation our fans gave Tretiak as he skated out to bath in the glory of being chosen first star.
Among the things it proved to me was that good hockey fans aren’t letting fanatical patriotism get in the way of their appreciation of true artistry.
We can still take immense pride in being Canadians and be fiercely patisan in cheering on the home team but it is gratifying to see that these matches are becoming less and less political; that we now look forward to them as true sportmanlike competitions between two hockey systems, not mana-wars pitting the free world against communism.
The Canadiens proved the Russians can be beaten, simply by the way they tied them. But until they DO beat them convincingly, the issue of who is better remains unresolved.
So, instead of gloating over the way the Russians were outplayed, I suggest we celebrate the fact these two teams surely will meet again and that the big winners, no matter what the scoreboard says, will be all of us who are fortunate enough to watch hockey as it should be played.
We also can rest assured that in spite of those fat NHL salaries and luxury living, we have a team in this city which has proven beyond all doubt that it has all the old-fashioned ingredients of a champion….hunger, dedication, and pride.
All that has been lacking was a challenge of sufficient magnitude. Let’s play it again, Sam….and again….and again….and again. I’m sure Tretiak and company would relish it as much as we would.”