Friday, October 22, 2010

Review: The Greatest Game (2010)

By Todd Denault

The New Year's Eve 1975 game between the Montreal Canadiens and Central Red Army has taken on something of a mythical status over the years. Mention the contest to many people in the game, and the answer almost comes back as cliche -- the greatest game ever played.

A reason why it's become mythical is in part because of the timing. The game was played just before the video recording age. It might be on one-inch tapes somewhere, but it's usually not found in the public domain.

That all makes it good fodder for a book. If anything, it's a surprise more hasn't been written about it, especially directly. Author Todd Denault scores some good points for using as the subject of his new book, "The Greatest Game."

It's difficult to explain the circumstances of the game to the under-30 crowd of today. The Soviet Union was a strange, unknown place back then. Their hockey teams won many Olympic championships in the Fifties and Sixties, but that was tempered by the fact that the National Hockey League's players and teams were participating. Just how good were these Soviets?

We found out in a hurry in 1972 -- plenty good. The Soviets played Team Canada to a near draw in an eight-game series, losing on a goal in the final moments of the final game. That curiosity was still around when a series between two Soviet teams and some NHL clubs in 1975-76 was set up. This was circled as the centerpiece game, as the Canadiens had become the class of the NHL that year while Red Army almost always dominated the Soviet league.

Most of Canada and the Soviet Union seemed to be watching that New Year's Eve, and they saw a classic. The Canadiens played a terrific game, finding weaknesses in the Soviet system and exploiting them. Yet Vladislav Tretiak, the Red Army goalie, had the night of his life. The game was a 3-3 draw that was, according to all accounts, astonishing in its skill and speed.

Denault spends relatively little time on the game itself, perhaps a bit surprising in a book about the game. But it turns into a good decision. He gives plenty of background on both the Canadiens' history and the rise of Soviet hockey. There are plenty of good stories told along the way.

The subplot to the story is the style of play in the game. On that night in 1975, the Philadelphia Flyers were the defending Stanley Cup champions. They used a violent style to slow the opposition, and then relied on stars like Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent to do the rest. It worked, twice, but aesthetically speaking it was ugly to watch and drove many away the sport.

It's Denault's belief that the Canadiens' skill turned the game away from the Flyers' brawn in terms of style, setting a standard for years to come. While Denault pounds that point home at times, and there was certainly more to the story than just that, the author's basic point has plenty of validity.

Denault is coming off a biography of Jacques Plante which came off a little distantly due to frequent quotes from newspaper and magazine descriptions. This book uses similiar research techniques, but it seems as if the author changes his style slightly to get a more personal approach to the story. He also talked with some of the participants, including Montreal coach Scotty Bowman. While it might have been interesting to hear from some of the Soviet players about it, this still reads quite well and is a noticeable improvement from the Plante book in terms of readability.

"The Greatest Game" will stand up well as a good treatment of a unique set of circumstances that led to a game for the ages. After reading it, many will want to run out and find a recording of the game. That's pretty high praise.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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