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Red Army Hockey: On Communism and Sports

The opening scene of the movie “Red Army” shows Slava Fetisov sitting across the table from a camera — and, you soon realize, the creator of the documentary, Gabe Polsky. It becomes clear almost immediately that Polsky is not the one driving the interview.

Fetisov pays little attention to the camera, if any. He’s too busy on his phone, which he alternately texts on and answers. Whenever Polsky tries to get the interview started — which, by the end, he seems almost resigned to never happening — Fetisov shows he’s as unharried by Polsky’s presence as he is by the camera. It’s not that he shushes him, or turns away from the camera — to Slava Fetisov, the camera and Polsky simply don’t exist.

This makes for about three or four minutes of awkward, stilted film; Fetisov works, Polsky stammers his way through the introductory lines of his interview, and the audience is stuck wondering whether the famed Russian defenseman will ever get down to the purpose of the film. Luckily for the audience (and, likely, the movie’s ratings) that happens before too much time elapses — with a happy* gesture at the camera, Fetisov finally makes eye contact with the lens.

I went to see this movie with one of my former colleagues, who has never lived anywhere but the Phoenix metropolitan area. He sat there shaking his head at Fetisov, laughing uncomfortably. You could feel the disbelief rolling off him in waves — is this man really so rude? his body language screams.

For me, though, this was a heartwarming, nostalgic scene. My russian professor in college was a Ukranian woman who didn’t leave the USSR until a few months prior to its true collapse — and although she’s lived on Long Island ever since, there’s no question of where she came from and how much it shaped her into who she is. For me, Viacheslav Fetisov is no more rude than any American — he’s simply the product of a vastly different social upbringing.

Once the documentary is really under way, you could have started a fire and the smattering of us in the theater would hardly have noticed. The story it told — from Fetisov’s first failed audition for the Red Army hockey team at age nine to his eventual Stanley Cup win with the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 — isn’t so much the story of someone lifted up from tragedy, but one of a hockey player’s evolution across two very different cultural mediums. They don’t touch much on the back-to-back championships Detroit won with their won ‘Russian Five’, but you quickly realize that the number of championships matter very little to Fetisov — rather, you get a much closer look at what winning the cup at all meant to Fetisov and his fellow Russians. Less time is spent on the wins — instead, you get an elaborate play-by-play of Fetisov’s struggle to get the cup in Russia. Less time is spent on how the Russians interacted with the other NHL players — rather, there’s an introspective peek at the dynamic between the Russian players themselves.

Parts of the documentary made me cry — yes, I’ll own up to it. Fetisov’s Red Army defensive partner Alexei Kasatonov struggled to tell his own story throughout the film — particularly when Polsky attempted to understand why Kasatonov refused to publicly support Fetisov’s decision to leave the Red Army team — and that was difficult to watch. He had no explanation ready for why he wouldn’t support his best friend — and although the two are now good friends again and both leaders in the Russian hockey community (Fetisov is the former Russian Minister of Sport and current chairman of the KHL Board of Directors, while Kasatonov has held a number of general manager positions within the KHL since his retirement from professional hockey), it’s clear the rift between them in the eighties is still something they haven’t forgotten.

Other parts, though, would make any hockey fan smile.

New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello is heavily featured in the documentary, as he was the first GM to actively encourage Fetisov to come to the NHL. When he first appeared in the film, I poked my friend:

“Of course, the New Jersey Devils have the opportunity to sign a Russian hockey player and they pick a defenseman! Classic Lou.”

The respect and dynamic between Fetisov and his first Red Army hockey coach is also one of the lighter storylines threading through the film. Anatoli Tarasov isn’t the coach most young hockey fans attribute to the dominant Soviet hockey clubs of years past, but his mentorship of the players and unorthodox coaching style — which included trips to ballet studios, gymnastics practice, and sit-downs with Russian chess masters to discuss on-ice strategy — are what truly shaped the seamless playing style we all associate with players like Fetisov and the rest of the Russian Five.

“очень хорошо!”

In English, that means ‘very good’. In Russian class, hearing your professor or teacher say that means you’re doing things right — Russians aren’t ones to butter you up with false praises. On the ice, Tarasov seemed to cry that at least once per film reel — a stark contrast from the robotic, unapologetic commands Viktor Tikhonov issued to the players once he took over the team. When Tarasov was on screen, things were surprisingly happy.

Towards the end of the film, though, Polsky asks Fetisov about the Soviet Union.

Throughout the documentary, all the players interviewed — Fetisov, Kasatonov, Slava Tretiak — express views I remember hearing back in college from my professor. As children, they all insist, things were hard. Families were poor, food wasn’t something you took for granted. They weren’t unhappy, though — for the generation of Soviets that first came to America as adults, the instant gratification and corruption seen in a capitalist system stand out that much more than they do to those of us who grew up in a free economy. The fear, they all insist, didn’t really set in until the very end — and much of that, they assert, came from the sudden loss of infrastructure. The Soviet collapse, to them, wasn’t the falling of a villainous empire — it was the result of too much political corruption slithering it’s way into every orifice of the only system they’d ever known. They don’t want to talk about whether things are better now — when even asked that, Fetisov gives Polsky an incredulous look. “That’s a stupid question,” he says. “things were how they were.”

In many ways, he’s right.

Americans and Canadians have long lived without any real glimpse at what benefits the Soviet system provided while the Iron Curtain still existed, but ‘Red Army’ offered at least one positive — the style of hockey that dominated the world for nearly half a century. Even today, teams that can execute a flawless passing sequence — no player more important than the next, everyone adjusting to fill spots on the ice when others move up — hold a clear advantage over those that have trouble reading their teammates. The Russian style of hockey, to the Western World, was a ‘finesse’ style — but watching the documentary, the audience grows to realize that it’s actually a very ‘soviet’ style. Everyone contributes equally — and while that political philosophy proved difficult to execute without corruption, the Red Army hockey team suggested that maybe that particular political ideology is better suited for team sports.

In the final scene, Fetisov finally engages with Polsky without being abrupt or aloof, calling him a ‘good California boy’.

Polsky pauses. “I’m from Chicago.”

Fetisov just smiles.

 

*Fetisov’s “happy” gesture to start the film, as you may imagine, wasn’t quite so friendly.

 

The film Red Army is being shown in select theatres around the United States and Canada. It won the Audience Choice Award at the Chicago International Film Festival 2014 and was given Special Mention for the Golden Eye Best International Documentary Film at the Zurich Film Festival 2014, in addition to being nominated for six additional documentary awards nationwide. Most recently, the Writers Guild of America nominated the film for the Best Documentary Screenplay at the WGA Awards 2015.

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