The title “Red Army” evokes the Cold War. That’s intentional. Gabe Polsky’s very lively documentary begins with a black-and-white clip from the ’50s: Ronald Reagan waxing anti-communist. He doesn’t say, “Tear down this curtain, Mr. Khrushchev,” but close enough.
Although the Cold War is definitely part of the film, its main subject is something seemingly quite different, except that it’s not: the Red Army hockey team. The team consisted of Soviet army personnel, who were as much “soldiers” as big-time NCAA athletes are “students.” During the 1970s and ’80s, the Red Army players were the best team on ice anywhere on the planet. Yes, that includes the NHL.
The Red Army club played hockey with an elegance that almost defies belief. Polsky includes enough game highlights so that belief doesn’t need defying. There are also talking-head interviews, archival footage, news clips, and even home movies. Editing all this material must have been nearly as daunting a prospect as playing the Red Army team in its heyday.
It’s a mark of Polsky’s ambition and canniness that he braids hockey not just with geopolitics but also with personal history and human drama. The history and drama come courtesy of Slava Fetisov, the documentary’s protagonist. He was Red Army’s captain. Some would also say (not Bobby Orr fans, of course) that he was the greatest defenseman ever to play the game. He finished his hockey career with the Detroit Red Wings, winning two Stanley Cups there.
Fetisov, who looks like a cross between Sam Neill and Klaus Kinski, is a compelling figure. He has an unmistakable gravitas. He’s just a hockey player in the way that Reagan was just an actor. In fact, Fetisov is a member of Russia’s parliament and previously served as minister of sport. If all that weren’t enough, he has a winningly dry sense of humor.
A member of three Olympic hockey teams, Fetisov won two gold medals. The one time his team lost was 1980, the Miracle on Ice. Polsky shows Fetisov watching a tape of the game. The expression on his face is priceless — if also unprintable. Polsky later shows him watching a tape of the gold-medal game at the Sarajevo Olympics in ’84. Let’s just say the expression on his face is very different.
Fetisov was brought up in the hockey system created by Anatoli Tarasov, his mentor. Watching the training methods Tarasov promoted (some of them inspired by the Bolshoi Ballet) is fascinating. The Kremlin replaced Tarasov with Viktor Tikhonov, for political reasons. The Red Army hockey team remained successful — but as much despite its coach as because of him. It was Tikhonov’s decision during the 1980 game with the United States to bench the team’s legendary goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, that many say caused the Soviet defeat.
Tikhonov, who declined to be interviewed, is the documentary’s villain — he and the Soviet political system. When Fetisov sought to play in the NHL, in 1988, he was made an example of. It was only after much bruising controversy that he was allowed to do so, months later. Hundreds of Russian players have followed him.
“Red Army” isn’t the team’s story so much as it’s Fetisov’s. The context that seemed to define both stories, Cold War politics, becomes something else: global economics. The United States beating the Soviets on ice in 1980 was a fluke. The United States beating them everywhere else was a matter of dollars and cents. That’s the ultimate power play.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.