“Red Army” explores the story of 1980s Soviet hockey

by Andrew Kingsley | 3/29/15 5:01pm

Many of us have fond memories of the hockey film “Miracle” (2004,) which tells the story of how the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team defeated the juggernaut Soviet team at the Lake Placid, New York Winter Olympics. Much like the Space Race, this game was steeped in Cold War politics and pitted capitalism against communism in the battle for global and athletic supremacy. In short, hockey was war, and the Russians had the biggest guns. While we savor our underdog American victory, in all the patriotic fanfare, we forget about those fallen Red Goliaths. The documentary “Red Army” (2014) shows “Miracle” from the other side, giving audiences a rare glimpse behind the Iron Curtain.

The documentary centers on interviews with the capricious and snide Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, a member of the USSR’s losing 1980 team and the captain of their gold medal-winning 1984 and 1988 teams. He recounts his stories with fresh emotion, his eyes illuminated by the memories of fluorescent lights and ears still aroar with the cheers of adoring Soviets. Victories are introduced with a Cheshire cat smile, savored like bonbons as he relishes the comically lopsided Russian victories. Defeats are told with simmering rage through vice-clenched teeth. He was a member of the illustrious Russian Five, a dream team that dominated international hockey in the 1980s. They were the true Titanic of hockey, except for when our raggedy band of college and amateur players sunk them at Lake Placid.

For the Soviets, hockey was war, politics and pride, but it was also beauty and art. Fetisov remarks on the gracelessly primitive American style, which was heavy on hard hitting and selfishness. Our “Puck Frinceton” mentality would sicken him. Watching the Soviet team weave across the ice, creating a human tapestry of delicate passes and colorful goals, was like witnessing a chess master organize his pawns into an elegantly impenetrable phalanx. This was communist hockey — share the puck evenly, and we all win. These awe-inspiring displays were enough to awaken some pro-communist feelings in me. Luckily the overpriced, cloying Sour Patch Kids and artificially-buttered popcorn brought me back to my capitalist senses.

Behind the whole organization was Anatoli Tarasov, who The New York Times has called the “father of Russian hockey,” a monomaniacal genius who saw hockey as a combination of ballet and chess and was more similar to Russian chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov or Confederate Army commander Robert E. Lee than hockey coach Scotty Bowman. He created the unique Russian system, which bred the best eight- and nine-year-olds in the Soviet Union into Olympic all-stars by the time they were 20. One can see where China gets it. Tarasov fathered these players into world-class athletes, teammates and brothers, lifting their hockey play to a level that made a young Wayne Gretzky admit after a humiliating defeat, “They’re just too good for us, it isn’t fair.”

But after Tarasov refused a political request to throw a game, the KGB replaced him with one of their own, the dictatorial Viktor Tikhonov, who coached the losing Lake Placid team and reigned over an era of abusive leadership and Gulag-style training camps. While he coached the team to back-to-back gold medals in 1984 and 1988, he bred such discontent amongst his players that many defected to the U.S. National Hockey League after the Cold War ended.

Yet this pipeline has sapped Russia of its hockey talent, as many young prospects seek the fame and fortune of the NHL, which began with Fetisov’s own defection to the NHL back in 1989. When Russian-born NHL star Alexander Ovechkin is shown taking slap shots at Russian nesting dolls filled with Russian dressing for a publicity stunt, you grimace at the infectiously gauche American style. Capitalism may have won out, but did hockey?

The film is like the Russian version of Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” (2014) about its own sharpshooter defenseman — except here there are no casualties or latent soapboxing, only a respectful homage to classical Soviet hockey. The director Gabe Polsky, born to Soviet immigrant parents and a former Yale University hockey player, directs like Tarasov, weaving these complex threads of history into a compact gem as short and flashy as a hockey game itself. A tribute to his hockey heroes, camaraderie and patriotism, Polsky has created a documentary that makes hockey fans out of even the least skate-savvy viewers and scores the rare hat trick of entertainment value, humor and history lesson.

Rating: 10/10

“Red Army” is playing at The Nugget at 7:00 p.m. until Thursday.