Thursday, May 2, 2024

Review: The Greatest Comeback (2022)

By John U. Bacon

Do you like oral histories?

Hockey fans who pass that test certainly will like "The Greatest Comeback," even if the structure of the book doesn't completely fit the traditional description of that technique. 

It's a look back at the famous 1972 hockey series between Canada and the Soviet Union. For those of you who weren't paying attention back then, there's never been anything quite like this in sports. Canadians essentially invented the sport and developed it and its world dominance hadn't been questioned for decades. But after World War II, the Soviets came along with a completely new way of playing the game. It featuring puck possession, speed and conditioning. They eventually began to dominate international competition, although the Canadians usually were excluded from such matches as the Olympics because of their professional status. (Yes, we know the Soviet team was paid to play hockey by the government, but it was all part of the gamesmanship going on.)

With nothing else left to prove, the Soviets challenged the Canadians hockey to a series of games Team Canada accepted the offer, figuring in many cases that they could simply cruise to an easy victory and maintain its reputation as the world's ultimate hockey power. Overconfidence is never becoming in sports, and it can come back to bite you. Ask the Soviet hockey team of 1980, which figured it would have no trouble with a bunch of college kids from the United States at the Olympics in Lake Placid. Some on this side of the pond, including general manager Punch Imlach of the Buffalo Sabres, in 1972 figured Canada would win all eight games easily.

But it didn't work out that way. Team Canada was an all-star squad at the start without much of a sense of team. The players had enjoyed the summer off and weren't in top shape. And the administrators had made some decisions about such factors as scheduling and officials that didn't help. It's tough to describe the reaction in Canada to Game One of the series - a stunning 7-3 loss in Montreal. It only took a dozen minutes in that game for Paul Henderson of Team Canada to note, it was going to be a loooooong series.

But as we know now, Team Canada eventually got its act together. It started thinking like a team, and playing like one too. Fitness came around, and the coaches made adjustments in reacting to the Soviet's approach. The result was out of a storybook - three straight wins in Moscow to capture the series, 4-3-1. Was it the Greatest Comeback Ever? Under the circumstances, you could make a good case for it. Meanwhile, there are open fields in Canada because of all of the trees that needed to be chopped down in order to print all of the books printed on this matchup. 

What was it like for Team Canada to go on that ride? Answering that question was Bacon's biggest task. He managed to talk at great length to just about everyone connected with the squad, as well as a few others. Even the players' wives chipped in with some valuable memories. Bacon also had books by Harry Sinden and Ken Dryden that were written as the series progressed, and he talked some others such as Wayne Gretzky - who was watching as a youngster back in Ontario. It's all edited together nicely with a ton of quotes along the way, supplying the same effect as an oral history.

It's that effort that makes this book a winner. We read about what all of the players were thinking along the way, on and off the ice. As an example, the NHL players rarely even spoke to opposing players in that era - even at All-Star Games. That created some walls that had to be broken down. By the end of the series, though, they realized that they were forever linked as participants in what was voted as one of the most significant events in Canadian history. The Soviets are kept at a distance here, and that really doesn't hurt the story much. There are books out there that cover that angle if you are interested.

There are all sorts of details of the series here that hadn't come up elsewhere. For example, four players left the team about halfway through as something of a protest about a lack of playing time. Two of them were Sabres - Gil Perreault and Rick Martin. I can't say I've read much about that particular aspect of the series, but the departure is covered quite thoroughly here. The reaction of the rest of the team, by the way, seems like it could be summed up with "good riddance." Bacon even comes up with the answer to a great Buffalo trivia question - what were Perreault and Martin's uniform numbers for the series? (It's 33 and 36 respectively.)

Bacon hasn't received enough acclaim for his work over the years. That's probably because he has written several books about the University of Michigan. That's a rather limited audience, particularly in the state of Ohio. But I've read a few of his books, and they've all been extremely well done. His name on the cover means you'll get something good. 

Meanwhile, the effects of that 1972 series linger to this day. The game we see today on the ice is a hybrid of the two styles that clashed back then. The skill level and pace of the game has improved drastically as a result. "The Greatest Comeback" is a full and readable account of how the road taken by the sport began. Even more than 50 years later, it's more than worth your time.

Five stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)  

Be notified of new posts on this site via @WDX2BB.

No comments:

Post a Comment