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New Year’s Eve memory: Watching Bobby Hull and the Black Hawks at the Olympia in 1965

For many hockey historians, the 1975 New Year’s Eve encounter between the star-studded Montreal Canadiens and the Soviet Central Red Army contingent was one of the best games ever played.

I’ve never really felt that way.

There is no question the Habs came out fired-up that night. It was unlike any run-of-the-mill regular-season game and different even from the normal intensity of an NHL playoff match-up.

This was billed as—and really was—a once-in-a lifetime meeting between two storied hockey franchises at their peak.

All this said, the Red Army didn’t show a lot that night, though they managed to tie the game 3-3. They came back from an early deficit against Montreal and goalie Ken Dryden (who struggled against Russian opponents throughout his career), scoring their goals on something like a total of 14 shots.

It was a fun game to watch, for sure. But to say it was the greatest of all time, I just don’t know. The stakes were certainly high, in terms of prestige and build-up. For me, though, to be the “best ever” would require two teams playing at their max, and that night, Montreal did, but the visitors didn’t. The Soviet side tied the game in the end because they were opportunistic, not because they played well. (I thought Tretiak was actually better in goal that night, though, than he had been throughout much of the 1972 Summit Series.)

A New Year’s game that I actually attended in person happened about 10 years previous in Detroit. I can’t honestly recall if it was in 1965 or 1966. (OK, to prove once again how memory can fail, I just looked it up, because I remember the score of the game that night, 1-1. The history book tells me that the game was actually played on December 31, 1964. I’ll have to change the title of this story!)

So with that bit of information, I was 11 at the time, and very excited to attend a game. It was still a rarity for me to go to games at the Olympia. That was the only NHL building I had ever been in, at that point I my life—and not often at that.

It was a bit of a departure that my Dad and I would attend the game on a New Year’s Eve. It was a tradition that we would always go to my Aunt Olive’s house for a big ‘family and friends’ celebration. But on this night, we went across the border and took in the Red Wing game first, and then Dad and I caught up with the rest of the family for the annual socializing.

We were “walk-ups” that night, though I don’t think people used that term in those days when describing folks who showed up for tickets at the last minute. On this particular night, we got there just as the game started. Other than the usual hometown Red Wing favorites—Howe, Delvecchio and Ullman—the big draws were Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and a really strong Black Hawk team. What we didn’t know at the time was that these two teams were destined to meet in the semi-finals later that season in a great 7-game playoff series.

With two good teams on hand, we expected an exciting game. We couldn’t actually get seats, as the game was a sell-out. We did manage to get standing-room tickets. We were scrunched in together on the first level, behind one of the nets.

It turned out to be one of the more boring games I’ve ever been to. If you don’t have a rooting interest—and I didn’t that night—you hope to see a lot of goals. In fairness, I was pretty young, so I’m sure I missed a lot of the nuances of the game, especially when I could barely see any of the action from the ‘end-zone’ standing room section. But the game was dull, finished 1-1, and it was one of those nights (like the occasional night nowadays when Ovechkin just doesn’t do much) that Hull, usually the most exciting player in the game at the time, did precious little. It’s likely he was closely covered that night, and neither he nor Howe did anything out of the ordinary.

But it was still a thrill to be watching an NHL game, with some of the greatest players in the world on display. I was with my Dad and it was New Year’s Eve, so it was all good.

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