In 1972, Canada and the Soviet Union faced off in an epic eight game series in what is now remembered as the Summit Series. Led by NHL stars Phil Esposito and Frank Mahovlich, fans on two continents witnessed some of the greatest hockey ever played as Canada won the series in the dying moments of game eight on Paul Henderson’s game winning goal. In 1974 the two hockey super powers squared off again. This time Canada’s roster would be stocked with players from the rival WHA. Legends Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe got their first crack at the U.S.S.R. But it was the Soviets who would prevail, winning 4 games while losing only once and tying three. What followed was the beginning of top level international hockey. In September of 1976 The Canada Cup was born pitting the top six hockey nations against each other.
But just before this tournament would be played, the Soviet Union would send two club teams to North America to play an eight game series against the NHL during the 1975 – 1976 season. This was Super Series ’76. CSKA Moscow, also known as The Red Army for it’s affiliation with the Soviet military, were the reining Soviet League Champions and by 1975 had won the title 19 times. They would face the apex of the National Hockey League in the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, and the Philadelphia Flyers. Following them to the states was Krylya Sovetov, or Soviet Wings who were the finalist that year in the Soviet League. Their series would match them against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Black Hawks, and the New York Islanders. This would be the first time club teams from the two professional leagues would ever play one another.
New Year’s Eve 1975. Two of the best hockey clubs in the world came together in what is remembered to be one of the greatest hockey games ever played. The Montreal Canadiens Vs. CSKA Moscow.
The Montreal Canadiens were the most successful club in the National Hockey League having won 18 Stanley Cups. They boasted one of the deepest forward lineups of all time with Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lefleur, Bob Gainey, Steve Shutt, Peter Mahovlich and captain Yvan Cournoyer. On defense were the Big Three: Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard. In goal Ken Dryden had already won 2 Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe, Vezina, and Calder trophy in a five year span. Eight of the ten players mentioned would go on to be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Legendary coach Scotty Bowman commanded the Habs bench in Patton like fashion.
The Red Army top line consisted of Vladimir Petrov, Valeri Kharlamov and Boris Mikhailov. All had played in the ’72 and ’74 series and would be mainstays on the National team for years. Patrolling the blue line were Alexander Gusev, Valery Vasiliev, who was on loan from Dynamo Moscow just for this series, and Vladimir Lutchenko arguably one of the greatest defensemen in Soviet hockey history. In goal was Vladislav Tretiak, known simply as the best goaltender in the world.
Both Tretiak and Kharlamov received the loudest ovations of any Soviet player during the introduction from the 18,000 fans that packed the storied Montreal Forum. No one would be disappointed. Two historic hockey clubs. Two vastly different playing styles. Two clashing ideologies. 37 pro titles between them.
Montreal opened the scoring at 3:16 of the first period with a goal by Steve Shutt. The Canadiens were outplaying CSKA Moscow early on, and at one point outshooting the Red Army 7 – 0. At 7:25 Yvon Lambert scores the second Canadiens goal for a 2 – 0 lead.
The Red Army style of play which consisted of carrying the puck over the oppositions blue line and cross ring passes rather then the dump and chase was being shut down by the Canadiens who clogged the neutral zone up, continuing their counter attack by raiding Red Army goaltender Tretiak with shot after shot. The lopsided attack showed on the shot clock as the Soviets searched for the perfect play refusing to pull the trigger unless they found it. At the end of the first period the shot total was 11 – 4 in favor of Montreal.
Red Army captain Boris Mikhailov opened the scoring in the second at 3:54 but Montreal would strike back at 9:39 with a powerplay goal by Cournoyer for a 3 – 1 lead. After the captains traded goals, with just under four minutes to go in the second, Petrov sprung Kharlamov with a pass over the Montreal blue line and with a burst of speed the Red Army forward split the Montreal defense sending a backhand past Dryden for one of the finest goals one will ever see. Tretiak had stopped 10 of 11 shots in the second frame keeping his outplayed team in the game setting the stage for an epic third period.
Montreal came out flying once again but it was on a broken play in the Montreal zone which saw Boris Alexandrov rifle a shot over the shoulder of Dryden. Montreal would post 16 shots on net in the third but Tretiak, at his zenith, would not allow another puck past him. The game would come to an end in a 3 – 3 tie just hours before the New Year.
CSKA Moscow would finish Super Series ’76 with a 2 – 1 – 1 record with victories over the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins. Their only defeat came at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers, Stanley Cup Champions from the two previous years. CSKA would continue it’s dominance of the Soviet League up until the Iron Curtain fell, winning 14 of the next 15 championships. Most of it’s players would also continue to represent the Soviet Union on the international stage winning an Olympic gold medal in 1976 and the IIHF World Championship from 1978 – 1983. Add to that a victory over the NHL All Stars in the 1979 Challenge Cup and handing Canada it’s single most embarrassing defeat in history with an 8 – 1 drubbing in the 1981 Canada Cup final.
The Montreal Canadiens were about to start up yet another dynasty winning four straight Stanley Cups from 1976 – 1979. In 1977 they posted the NHL’s best record ever going 60 – 8 – 12. Their record of 60 wins would stand until 1996 when the Scotty Bowman coached Detroit Red Wings would win 62 games. Currently the 2000’s stands as the only decade the Canadiens have not won a Stanley Cup.
Both clubs would meet again in future Super Series matchups. Montreal recorded a 4 – 2 victory in 1980 while CSKA Moscow defeated the Canadiens 6 – 1 in 1986. Though it is the 1976 game that is still spoken of today referred to only as “The New Year’s Eve Game”.