Gabe Polsky’s Red Army isn’t your usual sports documentary. It’s a human-interest story that happens to be about hockey players. You’ll get caught up in it even if you’ve never thought about hockey in your life.
The film tells the story of Soviet-Russian hockey, from the 1950s through the turbulent 1990s. It features archival footage that shows young boys waiting in line for seven or eight hours just to try out. Those who are accepted train for eleven months of the year under Coach Anatoly Tarasov.
One of these young men- and the film’s spark plug- is defenseman Slava Fetisov. His story is a rough parallel to that of Soviet hockey during the 1980s. Fetisov begins training under Tarasov when he is just ten years old.
Some of the archival footage in Red Army just has to be seen. There are shots of young boys, in full pads and on skates, doing somersaults. Players learn to skate while carrying another player on their shoulders. They work with dancers from the Bolshoi to learn agility. Chess players like Garry Kasparov teach them strategy.
The players adore Tarasov. He’s a visionary who completely changes the way everyone thinks about hockey. But something goes wrong between Tarasov and his bosses. In the middle 1970s, Tarasov is fired and replaced by Viktor Tikhonov.
Tikhonov proves to be extremely unpopular. The players consider him a dictator. A joke among them goes as follows: “Need a heart transplant? Ask for Viktor’s- it’s never been used.”
Fetisov continues to excel. He becomes part of the Green Unit, along with Alexi Kastonov, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, and Vladimir Krutov. It is widely considered to be unstoppable.
The one big exception occurs at the 1980 Olympics, when an underdog U.S. team upsets them. In the U.S., this is known as the Miracle on Ice. Red Army has a scene of Fetisov watching this game. He still tears up, even after all this time.
By 1984, the Soviets are back on top with a gold medal for hockey. Fetisov, along with several of his teammates, gets offers to play for teams in the United States. The government is adamant that such offers be refused, and a standoff is born.
What happens from there is a little tough to comprehend. Suffice it to say, the Soviet government doesn’t make it easy for Fetisov to hold his ground. After the treatment he gets, you’d think he’d leave and never go back.
Fetisov played for the NHL from 1989 to 1998, and he was part of the Detroit Red Wings teams that won back-to-back Stanley Cups. Following his retirement as a player, he served as the Minister of Sport for Russian from 2002-2008. As of this writing, he’s a member of the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia.
This is just one of the stories Polsky reveals over the course of the film. The details about life under the old Soviet system are compelling and whet your appetite for more. Let’s hope Polsky has a sequel in the works.
Theme: Mixing Sports & Politics
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