Book Review: “The Greatest Game”

In the music world artists have a quarter century to put together their first album and eight months to come up with their second. Faced with such a timeline many artists who hit it big out of the box are unable to sustain their success and wind up parking cars or pumping gas. Things are not that different in the publishing game and Todd Denault’s most recent release meets the standards he set in last year’s Jacques Plante – The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey.

The Greatest Game – The Montreal Canadiens, the Red Army, and the Night That Saved Hockey is a must-read for anyone interested in the legendary New Year’s Eve, 1975 Forum match-up between the world’s top hockey powerhouses.

Who, what, where, when, why and how are the questions that a comprehensive work of history or journalism answers. As he did in his initial offering, Denault spends considerable time setting the stage for his main event, the game itself, by plunging into historical archives and extensive interviews with original sources, turning the information gleaned into a smooth, flowing narrative that makes it difficult to put the book down.

There are 336 pages in The Greatest Game and the puck doesn’t drop until the 233rd. In the seventeen chapters preceding the game action readers get to travel back in time to the days when just about any senior amateur Canadian hockey squad could cross the Atlantic and come home with the World Championship safely tucked away for another year, an era that ended with the East York Lyndhursts dropping their final game to the Soviets in 1954 after breezing by all other opposition.

The first whispers that Canada might no longer be the sport’s pre-eminent nation that arose following that loss, one that Canadians long tried to negate as other defeats followed by confidently proclaiming that “our best can whip their best”, to the dark ages when the true north, strong and free, pulled out of international competitions to the efforts of Father David Bauer to re-establish a Canadian presence in top-flight international hockey and finally the 1972 series that proved assertions of Soviet supremacy to be more than simple propaganda, Denault manages to be both scholarly and engaging in his work, setting the stage by examining a number of the major players.

Opposing goaltenders, Ken Dryden and Vladislav Tretiak are given an in-depth treatment, their personal narratives and common history in the years leading up to the game in question detailed and memories recorded. So were the men who formed the brain trust on both sides with Sam Pollock, Scotty Bowman and Anatoli Tarasov also coming in for close examination in the years that led up to the encounter on Forum ice.

The time line of The Greatest Game extends beyond the final siren that made the midnight arrival of 1976 an anticlimax for over 17, 000 fans taking a look at the fiasco in Philadelphia shortly afterwards, when Tarasov pulled his team from the ice in a game against Fred Shero’s Flyers.  .

The text ends thirty years later with Tretiak and Dryden, once again together on the ice in Montreal, embracing and raising their arms in the air before the 21,373 fans present to share in the ceremony that saw the former Hab’s sweater raised to the rafters but the book goes on.

It takes twenty pages to list the footnotes that Denault uses to cite the work of other writers and interviews with people who were part of the story, either living it or covering it for media outlets, another nine to complete the bibliography he consulted while assembling and producing The Greatest Game, providing more than ample suggestions for further reading for those with an insatiable appetite for hockey history and a dozen more to index virtually every noun used.

The Greatest Game – The Montreal Canadiens, the Red Army and The Night That Saved Hockey
Author – Todd Denault
Publisher – McLelland & Stewart –  Toronto
32.99 CDN
29.99 US

Reviewer’s note – Conflict of Interest Notification
Among the many people Mr. Denault thanks in the acknowledgements is the fellow who provided the above review. Mr. Wyman is personally acquainted with Mr. Denault and has, on one occasion, broken bread with him. He also gave his last book a positive mention. These facts do not have any connection to this positive review.

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