If filmmaker Gabe Polsky’s biggest dream was to play in the NHL after his college hockey career at Yale, then making “Red Army” surely must have been runner-up.
While this hockey doc will undoubtedly be a magnet for enthusiasts of the sport, less savvy audiences should be taken by its riveting story, which is more like something you’d find in a John le Carré novel than some blasé history lesson.
The documentary tells the story of perhaps the most disciplined sports club in history, a military-operated, Soviet propaganda machine that churned out some of the greatest hockey talent in the world during the Cold War. For 11 months a year they would train, and with little access to the outside world, preparing for war on the ice as the nuclear arms race pressed on. “Join the Red Army and Serve Your Country”, read the recruitment posters.
One such player is legendary defenseman Slava Fetisov, who was with the organization from age 8 to 31. The film is told mostly through his perspective, with contributions from journalists, loved ones, and teammates.
A brief profile: Fetisov’s 7 Championship Gold Medals and 2 Olympic Golds (among too many others to list) take back shelf to his coveted Order of Lenin award, the highest honor a Russian could receive. A few years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Fetisov moved on to the NHL even when, according to him, the Minster of Defense threatened to send him to Siberia. After returning from his run in the states, he held the office of Russian Sports Minister from 2002-2008. The man is so iconic in the world of hockey that there’s even an asteroid named after him.
At the beginning of his interview with Fetisov, writer/producer/director Polsky (“The Motel Life”) finds himself in the company of a brusque, pre-occupied individual pecking away at his mobile phone while casually flipping the bird after ignoring the first several questions. This, as it turns out, is Fetisov’s sense of humor.
Despite sharing name and disposition with a chunk of space rock, an imposing 6′ 1″, 200 plus lb. frame and a look of perpetual dyspepsia, Fetisov is far from a blunt instrument. His game is one of finesse and precision, a style ingrained in him by his first coach Anatoli Tarasov, an unassuming fellow who adopted chess strategies into his playbook and is considered to be the father of Russian hockey. Fetisov, now 56, talks about his admiration of the late Tarasov, and the volatile relationship he had with one of Tarasov’s successors, Viktor Tikhonov, who ran the team with such brutal efficiency that he wouldn’t allow one of his players to visit his dying father.
Many folks will remember Tikhonov for the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, where a relatively green American team led by coach Herb Brooks defeated the seemingly invincible Soviet National Team in what was called the “Miracle on Ice” (which inspired the 2004 Kurt Russell-starring biopic). While the event itself is just a requisite inclusion in the film (a replay evokes a grimace from Fetisov), the politics surrounding it is what makes the film so interesting; implications that the team was controlled by the KGB who, according to retired agent Felix Nechepore, would provide “protection” for the players, seems like fodder for a feature-length spy thriller. As one player keenly observes, “Our country’s crisis is now reflected in hockey”.
Gabe Polsky may never have played in the NHL, but his documentary is imbued with his devotion to the sport as it delves into the fascinating life of the Russian legend and the collapse of a regime. Fetisov played the game professionally for over 20 years, becoming the bridge for the ’90s influx of Russian players into the NHL, where he and his deadly 5-man unit would eventually re-unite under Scotty Bowman’s Detriot Redwings (they won the Stanley Cup in ’97 and ’98). But the road that leads him there is not without its tragedies and betrayals.
Fetisov refused to defect, giving up a good chunk of his paycheck to the powers-that-be back in Russia. I suppose for a man whose loyalty to his country seems to outweigh his issues with it, to do otherwise might have seemed like the equivalent of selling out.
“Red Army” opens today at E Street Cinema in Washington, DC.