Friday, October 27, 2023

Review: The Game That Saved the NHL (2023)

By Ed Gruver

Amy discussion of Ed Gruver's book probably starts with the title. 

The publication is called "The Game That Saved the NHL."  That's a rather powerful statement that begs the question, "From what?" We're going to need a little background information about that moment in time before discussing how it is covered. 

The game in question was played between the Red Army team of the Soviet Union and the Philadelphia Flyers of the NHL in January, 1976. Hockey fans certainly remember the unique moment in 1972 when the all-star teams from the Soviets and the NHL met in an eight-game series which was barely won by the North Americans. That generated interest in the potential of a series of "exhibition games" between NHL teams and their Soviet counterparts in midseason.

The USSR sent two of their best teams, the Red Army and the Wings, to play a total of eight games. Both of the Soviet teams picked up a couple of reinforcements from other teams, which meant it wasn't exactly a true test of comparative abilities. Through the first seven games, things had not gone well for the NHL. The two Soviet squads had five five games, while the NHL had one win (Buffalo over the Wings, the lesser team of the two). The other game was a tie between Montreal and the Red Army.

Going into Game Eight, then, the Flyers were the NHL's last chance for a win over the perennial power of Soviet hockey. Philadelphia also was a two-time defending champion of the Stanley Cup. It certainly figured to a contrast in styles. They didn't call the Flyers the "Broad Street Bullies" for nothing. While they featured some terrific skill players in Bobby Clarke, Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish and Bernie Parent, they were more known for a rough and tough playing style that often left opponents intimidated. Essentially, the Flyers perfected an approach that had started in the expansion era because the new teams didn't have the talent to keep up with the Original Six ... and thus had to try something different in an attempt to win and sell tickets. 

Flyers' coach Fred Shero had studied Soviet hockey, and came up with a game plan that worked well. It probably was helped by the fact that an NHL referee worked the game, since a Soviet official might have not let some infractions go unpenalized. At one point late in the first period, the Red Army squad was furious enough at the Flyers' tactics to leave the ice and to threaten to leave the building. It took a while, but eventually the Soviets returned ... and little changed. Philadelphia poured on the shots and came away with a 4-1 win. It might have been the team's signature performance of that era.

Gruver covers the bases well enough here. He reviews the international hockey situation during the 1970s, which the game started to become more of a melting pot than its previous status as one that practically had a "North Americans Only" sign at the front door. Graver has mini-bios of anyone who played a role in the series. The second half of the book is mostly dedicated to the game itself. It's not easy to devote a lot of space to the play-by-play of a sports event that has been over for almost 50 years, particularly in the case of a free-flowing sport like hockey. There's a little repetition along the way, and it's a little surprising that the Soviet walkout wasn't a bigger deal in the story.

Still, this book essentially comes down to perspective and legacy. Those Flyers teams are very well remembered in the Philadelphia area, and Gruver comes off as a fan of them. After all, they won the only two Stanley Cups in team history. That's enough to make names like Clarke and Parent legends, and then some. But the team's playing style generated a lot of debate about whether the ends justified the means, and whether the intimidation tactics were good for hockey as a whole. 

If there was a game in that international series that might have "saved" the NHL, it might have been the one between the Canadiens and Red Army. It was an instant classic in terms of quality of play, and taught many people how exciting and beautiful the game could be played in a certain style. (The book, "The Greatest Game," by Todd Denault, covers the contest well.) The Flyers' approach when done without all of the wins turned off some potential fans by the amount of violence involved. The transformation of hockey took a long time, but the game today features much more skill and speed than ever before. The players are better, and the game is better to play and to watch.

Yes, the Flyers did beat the beat the Soviets had to offer on that January afternoon. That means that the NHL's three best teams - Philadelphia, Montreal and Buffalo - all did not lose to squads from the USSR. That was good for some debating points, especially since the Soviet teams had extra weapons. But it is tough to argue that its effects were long-lasting.

If you have fond memories of those Flyers' teams and that day in 1976, you'll certainly enjoy the look back at "The Game That Saved the NHL." Others are going to have trouble with the premise.

Three stars

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