Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Todd Denault

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Ten Questions, with Todd Denault

With the first two women inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, this is a week to celebrate hockey. What better way than with Todd Denault's new book, The Greatest Game: The Montreal Canadiens the Red Army, and the Night that Saved Hockey, published this fall with McClelland & Stewart. Todd talks to Open Book about hockey books, hockey memories, hockey heroes and hockey's greatest game.

Todd Denault will be reading and signing copies of his book on November 15 at the Burlington Central Public Library at 7 p.m. and on November 28 at Chapters Peterborough at 1 p.m.

Open Book:

Your new book, The Greatest Game: The Montreal Canadiens the Red Army, and the Night that Saved Hockey, is about the 1975 game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Central Red Army. Why is it considered "the greatest game ever played," and how did it save hockey?

Todd Denault:

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.

OB:

Is it possible for a game of equal significance to be played today, and if so, in which sport and between which teams?

TD:

The sporting world (and the world at large for that matter) has changed so much in the intervening 35 years. In 1975 the mere thought of a global village was still a pipe dream as the Cold War raged on. What made this game unique was that you had two teams that had each dominated the same sport in complete isolation of each other, with players who had few if any common experiences.
Fast forward to present day…all the world’s best players, regardless of nationality, play in the NHL (this is also becoming increasingly true of other sports, especially baseball and basketball). This was obviously not the case in the NHL of 1975. With our world seemingly shrinking every day thanks to ever advancing technology, it’s hard to imagine a game of equal significance in any sport being played today.

OB:

Who do you think will read this book — will it be of most interest to hockey fans, or do you anticipate a wider audience?

TD:

Obviously the main market for the book is the hockey audience. With that being said, I think the book is also something that will appeal to the more casual fan who remembers the events and the night of the game and those who are interested in a unique period in time.

OB:

What are some of the best hockey books you've read?

TD:

Ken Dryden’s The Game belongs at the top of any best of hockey books list. No player, before or since, has captured the essence of being a professional hockey player like he did with that book. I would also highly recommend Peter Gzowski’s The Game of Our Lives, which on its surface is a book about a young Wayne Gretzky and the 1980-81 Edmonton Oilers, but also wonderfully details how the sport of hockey is forever intertwined with our Canadian identity.

OB:

What did you learn during the writing of your first book, Jacques Plante:
The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey
, that helped you in writing this one?

TD:

Having done one book I had a much better realization of what it would take to do a second one. Learning all that it takes to get a book completed, even beyond the writing and getting it on the shelves, helped guide me in the writing and preparation of this second book.

OB:

What is your greatest hockey memory?

TD:

I think like most people my age the answers are pretty similar: the greatness that was the 1987 Canada Cup, the emotion of winning Canada’s first gold medal in 50 years in 2002 and, of course, the Olympics in Vancouver earlier this year.

OB:

Is there anything you think should be changed about today's NHL?

TD:

I think I might be in the minority on this, but I dislike the shootout and despise the fact that it has become so important in teams winning and losing. I hate that 65 minutes of play can be decided on a one-on-one confrontation between a shooter and a goaltender as the rest of the team watches from the bench. How does that prove in any way the better team??

OB:

If (and when!) we get a seventh NHL team in Canada, what city do you think it will be in?

TD:

Winnipeg and/or Quebec City. I think that both cities should be at the top of the list … it was a sad day for hockey when both teams packed up and left. It would be so gratifying as a fan and as a proud Canadian to see both fan bases, which have been missing their teams for well over a decade, rewarded with the return of the Jets and the Nordiques respectfully.

OB:

Is Carey Price the best goalie for the Canadiens, or should they have held on to Halak?

TD:

Clearly that was the thought of Montreal management. Only time will tell if the right decision was made. Personally, I think that Jaroslav Halak is a very good goalie who has had stretches of great play, but I also think that Carey Price has the potential to be a great if not elite level goalie. So I guess at the end of the day I agree with the Canadiens’ decision.

OB:

Will you write about hockey again? What would your focus be?

TD:

In a word yes. As for what the focus will be…well, that’s something that we’ll have to decide in the near future.


A member of the Society for International Hockey Research, Todd Denault is a freelance writer who has had his work featured in numerous online and print publications. He is the author of Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey.

For more information about The Greatest Game: The Montreal Canadiens the Red Army, and the Night that Saved Hockey, please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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