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Some call it the best game ever – others the best tie ever.

Red Fisher ranks it No. 5 on his top 10 moments during more than five decades newspaper writing on the NHL beat.

Whether best or not, almost all who lived back then recall it vividly.  To many, it remains a classic.

It’s now 40 years since the Montreal Canadiens hosted the Soviet Red Army on a New Year’s Eve game at the Montreal Fourm.

After the fact, the game continues to be written and spoken of.

In fact, the game had been highly anticipated and written of before its playing as well.

The series was groundbreaking in that Soviet club teams had never played against NHL teams. The 1976 games involved the best teams of each league including the reigning Soviet champions, “The Red Army Club” in English, and “Soviet Wings”.  The NHL teams involved included the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers and the historic and long standing, and soon-to-be  again in 1976  champion Montreal Canadiens. It should be noted that both Soviet teams were supplemented by other All Stars from their league.

In the earlier games Red Army trounced the New York Rangers 7-3, while Soviet Wings defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 7-4.

So it was on New Year’s Eve 1975, the Red Army and Canadiens met.

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 Red Army’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 defense 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 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.”

The game itself resulted in a 3-3 tie. despite his team being outshot 38-13.

Final shots favored Montreal 38-13, and is   notable for the performance of the Red Army’s Vladislav Tretiak.  Less recalled is that the Russians had the best late chance to win it when Vladimir Popov’s close-in shot hit the crossbar.

Red Army 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. A 2007 article chronicled the views of some who were there:

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.”

Joe Pelletier, international hockey author: “Artistically, it was an absolute joy to watch.”

Red Fisher’s views were mixed. In 2005 he said of the game, “The Habs deserved infinitely better, because on this night they made the Soviet Superman Theory look like Swiss cheese.”

But in a 2009 piece ranking his top games (this game was # 5), he said of the match:

Question: does it even come close to that accolade? When the Canadiens outshoot the Soviets 38-13 in a 3-3 skirmish, holding them to four shots in the first period, three in the second and six in the third, they were as near-perfect as any team can be. Call it a highlight-reel game for the Canadiens, but when the most important position on any hockey team springs leaks, “greatest” is hardly the word for it.

 

 

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