Ever since the game was played, on December 31, 1975, many have stated that the 3-3 tie between the Central Red Army and the Montreal Canadiens was the best game ever played.
It was the first meeting between the best Russian League team and the best in the NHL. It didn’t disappoint.
Four years later the two teams met again, but at the time only one team was currently the best in it’s league.
Central Red Army, barring one or two players, was essentially the Russian National Team. It was a squad that dominated it’s league, primarily due to the fact that they could basically have any player they wanted.
The Russians had proven to the North Americans that they were no pushover amateur team since 1972, and were the dominant force in international competition.
Over a dozen Red Army players were part of the National team that had won the Challenge Cup, earlier in 1979, against the NHL All-Stars. They also had two new young stars emerging in Sergei Makarov and Viacheslav Fetisov. The latter was originally drafted by Montreal in 1978.
The Canadiens were the defending four-time Stanley Cup champions, but in December 1979, they appeared to be far from a championship team.
Gone were veteran forwards Jacques LeMaire, Yvan Cournoyer and goaltender Ken Dryden. Perhaps more important was the departure of coach Scotty Bowman.
Bernie Geoffrion had taken over the reigns as the Montreal’s bench boss at the start of the 1979-80 season. As charismatic a man he was, he had a nonchalant coaching style. It was a far contrast from Bowman’s hard line approach, and it left his team vulnerable.
The Canadiens were struggling through the fall, despite a 6-2-2 October, and considered a team in crisis. From November 25 to December 21, the Canadiens went 2-7-3, earning just seven of a possible 24 points.
Geoffrion resigned, midway through the slump on December 12. Things didn’t get any better, when assistant coach Claude Ruel took over, as the Canadiens lost the next four games.
Ruel started to get the team turned around after that, going 3-1 to close out December and had his squad at a respectable fifth overall in the league standings.
The new head coach always had a tendency to favour the young players over his veterans. Before long the “Big Three” of Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe, was the “Big Two”.
Lapointe, who would slowly get less playing time in favour of second-year Canadien Rod Langway, was also battling the flu and sat out the New Years Eve game.
Red Army came into the Montreal Forum on December 31 having already rolled over the New York Islanders 3-2 and the New York Rangers 5-2.
Many expected it would be the same fate for the Canadiens, with call in shows asking listeners “How many goals you think the Habs will get wiped out by.” They would be in for a surprise.
Vladislav Tretiak, arguably the best goalie on the planet a the time, between the pipes at one end, Ruel called on rookie Richard Sevigny (ten career NHL games) to play goal for the Canadiens.
Despite low expectations of their team, the fans greeted the Canadiens with a standing ovation.
With Vladimir Petrov serving a hooking minor, the Canadiens got on the board first, with a power play goal from Yvan Lambert at 16:36.
Montreal’s defensive pairings clogged laneways, blocked shots and the aggressive fore-checking, led by Bob Gainey limited the Red Army to just three shots in the first period.
Montreal managed to get 13 on Tretiak. The score could easily have been 3-0 at that point, if not for the 27-year-old netminder’s brilliant play.
The Canadiens thought they had a second goal from Steve Shutt, but referee Bruce Hood ruled it a high stick.
“I saw the replay three times,” Shutt said. “My stick was on the way down, rather than being above my shoulder as the referee indicated.”
With only six shots In the second period, Red Army battled their way through a Canadiens defence, that had started to loosen up a bit, and managed to score twice on Sevigny.
Viktor Zhlutkov found the back of the net first at 6:51, and Helmut Balderis fired a shot from the blueline, that beat Sevigny between the pads at 12:02.
Helmut Balderis puts the Red Army ahead 2-1.
“It was hard to keep my concentration with only one shot in 19 minutes (of the first period),” Sevigny said. “When you come out in the second period, you feel like you need another warmup. It’s tough for a goalie.”
“In the second period, they came out in a completely different style,” Gainey said.
“They spread their five guys out pretty well over the ice. It threw our game off for a while. All of a sudden it feels like you are chasing something you can’t catch.”
With Tretiak performing at his typical goaltending level in the Montreal Forum, the Canadiens knew they would have to come in hard in the third period.
“We knew we let down in the second period,” Shutt said “Between periods, we told ourselves that we had to play the same kind of game that we did in the first period.”
They did just that. Robinson, Savard, Langway and Brian Engblom shut down any Russian rush that tried to get to the net, allowing just 14 shots to reach Sevigny all night.
Gainey and his band of forecheckers that included Doug Jarvis and Rejean Houle,continued to harass, while the rest of the forwards began to put on the pressure.
Shutt tied the game up at 3:38, when he fired a behind the net pass, from Guy Lafleur, low glove side behind Tretiak.
Six minutes later, Gainey rushed up the right side and beat Tretiak on a wrist shot that just squeaked inside the goal post.
Shutt would add his second goal of the night, after a giveaway in front of the net by Sergei Gimaiev.
Red Amy coach Viktor Tikhonov, never afraid to criticize, harshly scolded his player for the error.
Gimaeiv responded post-game in a way seldom seen by the Russians.
“It’s not my mistake.” he said. “A coach is right, and the players wrong if we win or lose.”
Gimaev’s comments were foreshadowing the dissention between, Tikhonov and his players, that became more clear two months later and over the next decade
The Canadiens would be victorious with a 4-2 victory.
“That’s as good a game as we’ve played all year,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we can go out and beat the Soviets every day because when two teams like we have meet, no one is going to dominate.”
Tretiak stopped 31 of the 35 shots he faced for Red Army, but showed displeasure in the overall team performance.
“I wasn’t pleased with half the team,” he said. “We could have played much better, but they played for all three periods.”
“That’s the best team we’ve played against.” added Tikhonov. “If there was any team ready to beat us, it’s the Canadiens. We made a lot of mistakes out there, mistakes the Canadiens forced us into.”
Tikhonov also went on to praise Gainey, citing him him as the best all-around player in the world.
It was clearly a strong moral victory for the Canadiens. The team played like the defending Stanley Cup champions should play.
“You can’t call this the championship of the world,” said Larry Robinson. “They’re in first place in the Soviet League, but we’re certainly not running away with things in the NHL right now. But one thing I know for sure, it’s a great morale booster.”
Lafleur, who had always been critiqued that he could not play against the Russians, proved that he was still the star of the team. Le Demon-Blond had two assists and at least five decent scoring chances on Tretiak.
Shutt felt the team’s success came from his coach, “I give the big credit to Claude Ruel because if we played them three weeks ago, they would have kicked the crap out of us.”
There are many who feel that this Canadiens-Red Army game was as good a game as the ‘75 standard, and maybe better. From a one-team side, you’d have to strongly agree.
Montreal dominated at both ends of the ice and proved that without key future Hall of Fame players in the lineup, they could still compete against the best Russia had to offer.
The victory clearly was a momentum builder as the Canadiens regained their form from that point on.
They would finish the regular season with 107 points, third best in the league, and capped it off with a 22-game unbeaten streak to close the season.
Their bid for a fight straight Stanley Cup would fall short, after they dropped a seven-game conference semi-final to the Minnesota North Stars.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Russia/Soviet Union All-Time record
12/31/75 Central Red Army (CSKA) 3 Canadiens 3
01/06/78 Montreal Canadiens 5 Spartak Moscow 2
12/31/79 Montreal Canadiens 4 CSKA 2
12/31/82 National Team 5 Canadiens 0
12/31/85 CSKA 6 Canadiens 1
01/02/90 Canadiens 2 Kryia Sovetov 1
09/12/90 Canadiens 5 SKA Lenigrad 3
09/14/90 Canadiens 4 Dyanmo Riga 2
09/16/90 Dynamo Moscow 4 Canadiens 1
09/18/90 CSKA 3 Canadiens 2
12/10/90 Khimik Voskresensk 6 Canadiens 3
Another piece on this historic night comes from Habs Eyes on The Prize, and includes more video clips from the game.
I also received photos from the game program from one of my readers. More on that is available here.
Special thanks to Joe Pelletier, Jean-Patrice Martel and Todd Denault for getting me in the right direction in researching this game.
The Montreal Gazette, January 2 1980
The Globe and Mail, January 1 1980