HabsWorld congratulates Todd Denault on the release of his book about the legendary “Habs vs. Red Army” hockey game of December 31, 1975. In this interview-style article, we jump in the head of a hockey book writer and get some insights on the process of making a book, particularly his latest one, “The Greatest Game – The Montreal Canadiens, the Red Army, and the Night That Saved Hockey”.
A graduate of the universities of Carleton and Lakehead, Todd is a member of the Society for International Hockey Research. He is a freelance writer who has had his work featured in numerous online and print publications. Todd published 75 research articles on the HabsWorld website between 2007 and 2008, many of them offering a delightful perspective on the careers of some of the most legendary Habs. You can access them here.
HW: Hi Todd, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions! This is your second book after “Jacques Plante – The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey” that was released in October of 2009. First off, can you give us a word on the reception of that first book? Did it meet or exceed your expectations, when thinking about publishing your first book?
Todd: Truthfully, the reception for the Plante book has been fantastic and with the paperback edition now out on the shelves the book seems to be reaching an even wider audience. When you’re in the process of sitting alone in front of the computer putting the book together you’re main hope is that the audience you’re writing for really enjoys the book. Luckily for me, the response to the Plante book has been overwhelmingly positive.
HW: Your second book was just released, on October 26. How has is it been received so far?
Todd: If anything the response to the new book has in some ways surpassed the Plante book. Part of that is because it is my second book and another factor is that for so many people the events of December 31st, 1975 are permanently ingrained in so many people’s memories. Of course, the fact that the game has received so much exposure over the years through television replays has only helped to lay the groundwork the great reception the book has enjoyed.
HW: How different was the process of making a book about an event instead than focusing more around a single individual? Was it more difficult to narrow the content down?
Todd: There’s no doubt that there was maybe more research involved in this book as opposed to the Plante book, simply because the new book has so many more strands and subplots. The real challenge was in taking all these various people and stories and weaving them together within the context of this book.
HW: Why is that hockey game considered “the greatest game ever played,” and how did it save hockey?
Todd: At the time hockey, in Canada in particular, was undergoing two separate and distinct but nonetheless very serious challenges to what we considered both now and then as “our game.”
The first was represented by the unexpected emergence of the Soviet Union into what we as Canadians considered a game that belonged to us and us alone. The results of the 1972 Summit Series had awakened the country not only to the fact that another country played the sport at a high level, but to the overriding fear that maybe they played it at a higher level than we did.
Secondly, the rapid expansion of professional hockey teams in the past decade had severely altered the landscape of the sport. In 1967 the NHL had consisted of six teams. By the time the Montreal Canadiens and the Central Red Army met on December 31st, 1975 there were eighteen teams as the league had tripled in size in eight short years (in addition to the fourteen teams that made up the NHL’s principal rival at the time, the World Hockey Association). In an effort to fill up the rosters of these nascent teams, many players who normally would never have enjoyed a professional career now found themselves skating in the NHL. As a result players whose main attribute was brawn began overshadowing and physically dominating the more skilled players.
This culminated in the Philadelphia Flyers winning the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975. The Flyers, while undoubtedly containing a few skilled players, were the first team to use intimidation as one of the major tenants of their approach to the game, shattering all previous records for penalty minutes and terrorizing the league. In part because of their success many teams at both the professional and the amateur level began copying the Flyers’ example. The end result was that the sport was becoming more violent than ever.
Against that backdrop the Canadiens and the Red Army met on the evening of December 31st, 1975. This game represented the first meeting between the most successful team in the NHL against its exact counterpart from the Soviet Union. What followed was sixty minutes that showcased the sport in its purest form, free of the thuggery that was plaguing the game at the time. The game between the Canadiens and the Red Army featured numerous future Hall of Fame players at their best in a game that revealed the sport at its most beautiful.
This stood in stark contrast to the direction the sport had taken, and after watching the New Year’s Eve game many questioned the violence that had been slowly becoming such an integral part of the sport. This particular game reminded many people of the game they grew up with on the frozen ponds of Canada and signaled a turning point in which many sought to return the sport to its purest virtues. Four months later the Canadiens would capture the Stanley Cup, defeating the champion Flyers and starting an era when skill and speed ruled the hockey world.
At a time when doubt had begun to infiltrate the Canadian hockey psyche, that particular game also conclusively proved that hockey as practiced by those in Canada was the equal (if not better) to the sport as practiced by those in the Soviet Union. It helped set the stage for all of the international hockey competitions (Canada Cup, World Cup, Olympic Games etc …) that followed in its wake.
The December 31st, 1975 game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Central Red Army set the bar for what was to follow as the sport began its global expansion. Held at the height of the Cold War, it featured the startling sight of a Russian player (Vladislav Tretiak) at the conclusion of the game being given a loud, extended standing ovation by a large group of highly partisan Canadian fans. Needless to say, in a time of cultural, societal and political differences, an age of “us vs. them,” such unabashed applause and appreciation was highly rare if not unique to December 31st, 1975.
Thirty-five years later the NHL has become a global league showcasing players from all over the world…a development that can trace its beginnings to a New Year’s Eve night in 1975.
HW: In this book, do you go as far as portraying this event in the context of the Cold War, and analyzing its impact on it, if any?
Todd: For me the impact of that game can be best symbolized by what took place after the game when Vladislav Tretiak was announced as the game’s first star. To see a person, not just a player, from the Soviet Union receive a standing ovation from the Montreal Forum crowd … it goes to show how the sport of hockey and the appreciation for the sport played at its highest level can cut across political, cultural, and sociological boundaries. Needless to say I don’t think there were many standing ovations in North America at that time for anyone representing the Soviet Union in any arena, sporting or not.
HW: At what moment did the people realized that this game was special, let alone, the greatest?
Todd: Pretty quickly. In the book Ralph Mellanby, the television producer for CBC that night, told me that he was getting phone calls that night in the first intermission from the corporations head office raving about the game. I won’t ruin it for any potential reader but I do have a part in the book about how the members of the broadcast team spent time together after the game taking in what would happen. And a quick perusal of the newspapers in the days that followed confirms that the game had indeed been a special and noteworthy event.
HW: Who are the main characters portrayed in this book? Which one(s) do you think the reader will be the most surprised to learn more about?
Todd: The early part of the book is told through the perspective of Anatoly Tarasov and Sam Pollock. As the book progresses the story is increasingly told through the eyes of Vladislav Tretiak and Ken Dryden. As to your second question, over time the legend of Ken Dryden and his surprising entrance on the scene in the spring of 1971 has taken on a life of it’s own. I think that many readers will be surprised at how much and for how long Ken Dryden was on Pollock, and the Canadiens radar.
HW: Are there particular people that were key in making this game memorable?
Todd: There are many aspects that went into making the game so memorable. For example, Scotty Bowman told me that on that night, “Tretiak played as good a game in goal as he had ever seen.” On the other hand, Red Fisher, the dean of all hockey writers told me that on that same night, “the Canadiens (with the exception of Ken Dryden) played the most perfect hockey game he had ever seen.” High praise. And it is the meeting of these two elements that went a long way to making the game what it was.
HW: Do you consider Vladislav Tretiak as the greatest goalie of all time?
Todd: It’s very difficult to say one way or the other whether Tretiak was the greatest goalie of all-time. It would be very difficult for me to rank him above Jacques Plante, Terry Sawchuk, or Patrick Roy for that matter. Sadly, we were all deprived (for political reasons) of seeing more of Tretiak in his prime. Personally, I would have liked to see Tretiak play a full NHL season and then go through an extended playoff run. I think that under that circumstance we would all be better equipped to answer that question.
HW: What do you have to say about the Canadiens drafting Tretiak in the 7th round of the 1983 draft, less than 7 years after that memorable game?
Todd: At the time many dismissed it as little more than a publicity stunt from Serge Savard (at the time the Canadiens General Manager). However, people tend to overlook that at the time Tretiak was only 32 years-old and that the Canadiens situation in net, post-Dryden was more than a little unsettled (of course, in a couple of years with the arrival of Patrick Roy that would all change). In retrospect I believe that Savard tried his hardest (and multiple excursions to the Soviet Union would indicate this) to pry Tretiak from the clutches of the Soviet system, but as we know in the end, he was unsuccessful.
HW: What part of the process of writing a book do you find most tedious? What part of the process do you enjoy the most? (Example: Scheduling interviews, researching and assembling data, or the actual writing phase)
Todd: To be perfectly honest I thoroughly enjoy the whole process and all of its different phases, but in the end there is nothing to compare to the feeling of having the finished book in your hands.
HW: Are you already thinking about writing a third book?
Todd: As it stands right now we are in the process of going through the various ideas for book number three, which I’ll hopefully begin in the new year.
HW: Thank you for your time, and best wishes for the continuation of your career!
Visit Todd Denault’s publishing company website for more information about his two books. You may also get his books on amazon.ca. Those are definitely a great gift idea for any hockey fan, old or young!