A tie for the ages
A tie for the ages
Reliving the Montreal-CSKA clash on NYE ‘75
On 31 December 1975, Vladislav Tretiak put on his own fireworks display. But instead of lighting up the night sky that New Year’s Eve, the legendary Russian goalie dazzled hockey fans at the Montreal Forum. He made 35 saves as his CSKA Moscow – also dubbed as Red Army – earned a 3-3 exhibition tie with the Montreal Canadiens.
Some might wonder exactly what made it so special. Sure, it heightened Tretiak’s reputation as arguably the greatest goalie of his era, with due respect to Tony Esposito, Bernie Parent, and Ken Dryden. But no championship titles or even points in the standings were handed out. Why is this sometimes dubbed “the greatest game ever played”?
It’s about historical context as well as superb hockey. In 1972, the Soviet national team had faced the top Canadian NHL pros for the first time in the eight-game Summit Series. Canada was favoured going in, but barely triumphed thanks to Paul Henderson’s last-minute goal in Moscow. No further NHL-Soviet competition had occurred since then, and the question of world hockey supremacy was in doubt.
Although the Soviets proved unable to match Canada’s checking and intensity in 1972, their physical conditioning, skating, and passing often looked superior. Therefore, pride was at stake in the inaugural 1975 Superseries, which pitted eight NHL clubs against the Moscow club teams CSKA (Red Army) and Krylia Sovietov (Soviet Wings). Politically, the Cold War between capitalism and communism was still going strong, which added an “our system versus yours” tension.
“We learned that the Russians would not get involved unless they were prepared to win,” said Montreal’s Pete Mahovlich, who played in 1972. “Come the New Year’s Eve game, we knew we were going to have our hands full.”
“That game was like a replay of the 1972 series,” said Yvan Cournoyer, then captain of the NHL’s most storied franchise. “People didn’t know what to expect. But by the time we played that game, we knew their system better. We were in better shape physically, and we had something to prove. We were the Montreal Canadiens, and we were facing an all-star Soviet team.”
Yet at this time, the Habs were Hab-nots in the championship department. The Philadelphia Flyers, nicknamed the “Broad Street Bullies”, had gooned their way to two straight Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, causing widespread disillusionment with the NHL product. The Toronto Star’s Milt Dunnell wrote in his New Year’s Eve game preview: “What North American hockey needs is a real shocker–the kind it will get if the Canadiens lose.”
However, Montreal was on the cusp of greatness and wouldn’t concede a thing. 1975/76 was superstar winger Guy Lafleur’s breakout season, and Mahovlich, Steve Shutt, and Jacques Lemaire also added offensive flair. Bob Gainey and Doug Jarvis were prototypical defensive forwards, and the “Big Three” of Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, and Larry Robinson headlined the NHL’s best blueline. In goal, Ken Dryden came in with a 1.79 GAA through 31 NHL starts that season.
Montreal’s roster was so good that even today, Red Army captain Boris Mikhailov can recite the names without hesitation. “At that time, in the Soviet press, there was a lot about Montreal, Toronto, and Detroit, but mostly Montreal,” said Mikhailov. “We regarded Montreal as the top NHL team, because we knew about all their great players.”
CSKA was stacked too, as in those days the Moscow club siphoned off the best talent from Voskresensk to Vladivostok and dominated the national team. In addition to Mikhailov’s famous line with Vladimir Petrov and Valeri Kharlamov, the perennial Soviet League champion borrowed sniper Alexander Maltsev and blueline stalwart Valeri Vasiliev from Dynamo Moscow for the Superseries. Veteran stars like Vladimir Lutchenko and Gennadi Tsygankov rounded out the defence corps in front of Tretiak.
So the 18,975 fans who packed the Montreal Forum that snowy night realized they were witnessing the unofficial club championship of the world. Some paid scalpers $100 a ticket, more than for the Summit Series opener in 1972. They snapped up programs festooned with red stars and gave the electrifying Kharlamov a big cheer during the pre-game introductions.
The psyched-up Habs earned deafening ovations in the first period, charging out to a 2-0 lead. Shutt beat Tretiak with a high slapshot at 3:16, and Yvon Lambert backhanded home a loose puck at 7:25. While Montreal outshot Red Army 10-4, the overall play had a beautiful back-and-forth rhythm. The hard-skating brand of hockey was as clean as the Forum’s white boards and white ice.
Dryden, who had isolated himself at a downtown hotel for 24 hours to get focused, confessed later that he “could never get mentally free enough just to play” in this game. Mikhailov scored on him with CSKA’s first shot of the second period.
Tretiak’s heroics weren’t enough to stop a screened Cournoyer wrister on the power play that put Montreal up 3-1 near the halfway mark. But the Russian knack for opportunism turned the tide, despite their territorial disadvantage. “The Russians were notorious for being able to handle that wave,” Montreal’s Doug Risebrough recalled.
First, Kharlamov knifed his way through the Montreal defence and put a backhand past Dryden late in the second. “I think he popped up out of a hole in the ice,” Dryden said ruefully. Tretiak stymied Lambert, Lemaire, and Lafleur in quick succession early in the third. And then Boris Alexandrov, the youngest Soviet at age 20, converted a 2-on-1 setup from Viktor Zhluktov to tie the score.
Alexandrov, interestingly, starred at both of the first two unofficial World Juniors (not sanctioned by the IIHF) in 1974 in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and 1975 in Manitoba, Minnesota, and North Dakota.
“Alexandrov was super-fast and he showed great character,” said Russian hockey historian Arthur Chidlovski. “It’s too bad his career went downhill in subsequent years.”
Final shots favoured Montreal 38-13, but the Soviets had the best late chance to win it when Vladimir Popov’s close-in shot hit the crossbar.
The Red Army team experienced tough times after this game. It didn’t win the 1976 Soviet League title, and its national team stars, despite claiming Olympic gold, fell short in the inaugural Canada Cup and the 1976 and 1977 World Championships. But it rebounded as the core of international hockey’s most dominant force from 1978 to 1983.
Montreal, meanwhile, forged a new dynasty, capturing four Stanley Cups from 1976 to 1979. New Year’s Eve 1975 was a touchstone for the high-tempo, offensive hockey that would shape the NHL right through the 1980’s.
Was it the greatest game ever played? That depends on who you ask.
Pete Mahovlich: “Over 60 minutes, it was the best hockey game I’ve ever been associated with, in terms of goaltending, puck possession, strategy and so on.”
Yvan Cournoyer: “It’s hard to say it was the best game. We had many good games. But it was a special event.”
Boris Mikhailov: “On a club level, it was probably the best game ever played. It was very skillful, very intense.”
Vladislav Tretiak: “As far as I’m concerned, this is what the game of hockey is all about. I would love to play it over again.”
Red Fisher, Montreal Gazette: “The Habs deserved infinitely better, because on this night they made the Soviet Superman Theory look like Swiss cheese.”
Joe Pelletier, international hockey author: “Artistically, it was an absolute joy to watch.”
Szymon Szemberg, former IIHF communications director: “It showed the Canadiens could play sophisticated hockey and skate with the Soviets, whereas most Europeans thought then that the NHLers could only dump and chase and rough it up.”
31 December 1975
Montreal Canadiens vs. CSKA Moscow 3-3
1. Montreal, Shutt (Mahovlich) 3:16
2. Montreal, Lambert (Risebrough, Savard) 7:25
Penalties: Wilson 0:32, Vasiliev 4:43, Cournoyer 16:33, Zhluktov 19:45
3. CSKA, Mikhailov (Vasiliev) 3:54
4. Montreal, Cournoyer (Lafleur, Lemaire) 9:39 PPG
5. CSKA, Kharlamov (Petrov, Mikhailov) 16:21
Penalties: Solodukhin 7:38, Gusev 8:23, Savard 9:52
6. CSKA, Alexandrov (Zhluktov, Tsygankov) 4:04
Penalties: Vasiliev 0:27
Shots on Goal
Montreal: 11, 11, 16=38
CSKA: 4, 3, 6=13
Goal: Dryden (Montreal), Tretiak (CSKA)
Coaches: Scotty Bowman (Montreal), Konstantin Loktev (CSKA)
1. Tretiak, CSKA
2. Mahovlich, Montreal
3. Cournoyer, Montreal
This is an edited version of a story that was originally published in 2005.
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