The Greatest Game : The Montreal Canadiens, the Red Army, and the Night That Saved Hockey
This game wasn't about money, points, or trophies. Instead it was played for pride, both personal and national. It was a confrontation twenty years in the making and it marked a turning point in the history of hockey.
On December 31, 1975, the Montreal Canadiens, the most successful franchise in the NHL, hosted the touring Central Red Army, the dominant team in the Soviet Union. For three hours millions of people in both Canada and the Soviet Union were glued to their television sets. What transpired that evening was a game that surpassed all the hype and was subsequently referred to as "the greatest game ever played." Held at the height of the Cold War, this remarkable contest transcended sports and took on serious cultural, sociological, and political overtones. And while the final result was a 3-3 tie, no one who saw the game was left disappointed. This exhibition of skill was hockey at its finest, and it set the bar for what was to follow as the sport began its global expansion.
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McClelland & Stewart
October 25, 2010
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Excerpt from The Greatest Game by Todd Denault
1. A RUDE AWAKENING
Stockholm, Sweden, March 7, 1954. Canada is a country often divided by geographic, spiritual, and linguistic differences, and yet there is one sport that can bring everyone together. The first organized indoor hockey game on ice took place in Montreal on March 3, 1875, and by the dawn of the twentieth century, hockey was established as Canada's most popular sport.
The popularity of hockey soon expanded into other countries, particularly in Europe. At the 1920 Winter Olympics the first World Championship was contested, and Canada, represented by the Winnipeg Falcons, breezed to the gold medal, outscoring its opponents 27-1.1
The World Championships became an annual event in 1930, and Canada, represented by teams like the RCAF Flyers and the Edmonton Mercurys, emerged as hockey's dominant country, winning fifteen of the first eighteen championships in which it entered. In spite of their previous successes, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association was unable to find a team that was willing to go overseas and represent the country at the 1954 World Championship in Stockholm. The issue was the ever increasing financial concerns. In addition to the travelling costs involved in such a venture, there was a growing resentment from within the association that the Canadian teams were not getting a fair shake overseas. In the days leading up to the tournament the Canadian teams would routinely play exhibition games throughout Europe. Wherever they played, the touring Canadians gathered tremendous crowds, but they received very little, if any, of the gate receipts. This left the touring Canadian team with no way of recouping their travel, meal, and accommodation expenses. As well, many of the Canadian teams had become increasingly frustrated with what was seen as a bias against the "Canadian" style of hockey, which in the view of many of their European opponents and officials was characterized by its aggressiveness, belligerence, and overt physicality.
Despite all of these issues and with many of the best Senior A teams declining the invitation, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association found a willing team in the East York Lyndhursts. A Senior B amateur team located in suburban Toronto, the Lyndhursts were not up to the standards of some of Canada's previous entries, many of whom were former Allan Cup winners, which annually crowned the best team in Senior A hockey.
However, once the tournament began, none of this seemed to matter, as the Lyndhursts outscored their opponents 57-5, winning all six of their games with ease. In their seventh game, the Lyndhursts would be playing for the gold medal. Their opponents were participating in their first international tournament and like Canada had won all six of their games. For the very first time a Canadian team would play against a Soviet team in an encounter with serious political overtones.
In March 1954, the Cold War was less than a decade old and was already characterized by an uninterrupted state of political conflict, military tension, and economic rivalry that placed the Soviet Union (and its satellite countries) on one side and Canada (and much of the Western world, led by the United States) on the other side.
A unique characteristic of the Cold War was that the two sides never engaged in direct conflict but instead focused their attention on competition on every level. The two warring sides struggled for military superiority, raced each other to the moon, and fought for scientific and technical supremacy. In the quest for global authority, propaganda became a valuable tool in the conflict and the fields of sports and culture became important fronts, whether it was events like the Olympics or high-profile chess games. Hockey was not immune from this conflict and international matches took on an added importance, as "us vs. them" became a rallying cry for both sides.
The deciding game of the 1954 World Hockey Championship was contested in the afternoon. The combination of the warm spring weather and an outdoor facility normally reserved for football made the skating surface the worst it had been throughout the tournament. In among a crowd of sixteen thousand spectators sat a lone reporter from Canada representing Canadian Press.
As the Soviets skated out, he couldn't help but make note of their appearance. Their jerseys hung too long on their slender builds, their sticks were all homemade, and in a time when most players went bare-headed, the Soviet team sported bicycle helmets. For the Lyndhursts the Soviet team may as well have come from another planet. The Canadians were unfamiliar with many of the Soviet players and woefully unprepared for what was to come. The Russians, on the other hand, were not so ill prepared. In the days leading up to their encounter the Russians had closely studied the team from East Lyndhurst. They were alarmed by the loud noise of the puck careening off the boards as the Canadians shots let out a large thumping sound. Not possessing any hard shooters themselves, the Russians strategy was to take away the powerful shot from their Canadian adversaries.2
The game was barely a few minutes old when the differences between the two teams became apparent to all those in attendance. The Lyndhursts seemed nervous and played a tentative game, allowing the Soviets to take control, using a variety of quick passes, hard checking, and superior skating. The stunned Canadian squad was unable to mount any sort of counterattack.
"The Russians also took a leaf out of Canada's book by bodychecking fiercely and by racing to face the Canadians before they had time to start plays," reported Canadian Press. "The result was that the Canadian attacks were limited to stray sorties."3
"Their slowest skater was faster than our fastest skater," remembered Canadian forward Eric Unger, expressing just how outclassed the Lyndhursts were that day.4
"Their passes clicked while Canada's went astray," Canadian Press observed. "Their defense took competent charge of most East York attacks while the Canadians frequently left Goalie Don Lockhart unprotected in their headlong charges up the ice. The former Maritime netminder played brilliantly but the constant Russian pressure took a steady toll."5 With their offensive thrusts going virtually unopposed, the Soviets ran up a 4-0 lead after the first period, extended it to 7-1 at the end of the second period, and protected their lead on their way to icing a 7-2 win and the country's first championship.
As the final buzzer echoed through the stadium, dozens of excited Russian officials, clad in long black coats, ran onto the ice and planted triumphant kisses on their jubilant players. The directors of the tournament then presented the players with their gold medals as the Soviet anthem played in the background. Standing on their own blue line the defeated Canadians could only watch as the Soviet flag was slowly hoisted in the air.
In a war where propaganda was a valuable tool, the victory was treated in the Soviet Union as a national triumph. The state-sponsored newspapers downplayed the Lyndhursts' amateur status, instead reiterating that the Soviets had defeated "Team Canada."
And while the Soviet Union celebrated, Canada found itself in the midst of a national crisis. Canada had slipped from its pedestal, and the sport had turned a corner.
Lionel Conacher, a sitting Member of Parliament and the man honoured as Canada's greatest athlete of the first half of the twentieth century, proclaimed the result "a catastrophe" for Canadian hockey.6 "Canadian youngsters are brought up to believe that we have the best hockey players in the world," said Conacher, expressing in words the shame that spread through the Canadian hockey community. "Now they know only that the Russians beat us."7
Conn Smythe, the founder and then-managing director of the Toronto Maple Leafs, took it a step further, announcing on the night after the decisive game "that his team is prepared to go to Russia immediately . . . we're only interested in one thing - to keep the old flag flying."8
Smythe went on to boldly announce that once the NHL playoff season concluded in late April that the Leafs would be available to travel to Moscow to confront the champion Soviets.
In the end, the words of challenge did not amount to much. The Toronto Maple Leafs never did make the trek to Russia. In fact, it would be another twenty-one years before a team from the National Hockey League faced off against a team from the Soviet Union.