When sports fans list the greatest games, they talk about close contests, outstanding performances, and dramatic finishes. Think of game six of the 1975 World Series between the Red Sox and the Reds, or Boston College’s 47-45 win over the University of Miami in 1984, capped by Doug Flutie’s miraculous touchdown pass. But when sports historians draw up their lists of the greatest games, they point to contests that had significant influence on the development of a sport yet might have been one-sided or unremarkable in their action. Take, for example, the 1958 NFL championship between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, which inaugurated professional football’s popularity in the United States. Although close and dramatic, the game was not a show of high-quality play. Likewise, one of the most important matches in soccer history, Hungary’s 1953 victory over England, which signaled the end of English dominance in world football, was a 6-3 drubbing.
But the exhibition between the Montreal Canadiens and the Soviet Red Army team on New Year’s Eve 1975 meets all the requirements of a great game: legendary players, closely matched teams, sensational action, a nail-biting finish, and a lasting influence on the evolution of hockey. In his book The Greatest Game: The Montreal Canadiens, the Red Army, and the Night That Saved Hockey (McClelland & Stewart, 2010), Todd Denault approaches this famous game from all sides. It was, on the one hand, a single contest between the two best teams in the world, pitting players like Ken Dryden and Guy Lafleur against their Russian equals, Vladislav Tretiak and Valeri Kharlamov. But far more than that, this was a demonstration of hockey at its most spectacular, coming at a time when the professional game, as played in the NHL, was in danger of sinking into thuggery. As Todd states in the book and the interview, this game, and the Canadiens’ subsequent Stanley Cup win, pointed the way to NHL hockey of the 1980s and today: a sport of speed and strength that combines the Canadian and European styles.