The intersection of sport and politics was never more obvious than in the Soviet Union, where the Red Army hockey team was meant to be living proof that the communist system was superior to all others.
On the ice that proved to be the case, and this utterly fascinating documentary is practically a love poem to a team whose flowing, ballet-like style of play made it a joy to watch, and nearly unbeatable. But away from the rink, “Red Army” meticulously details a totalitarian regimen of training, spying and total control over all aspects of life that soon alienated the players from the team and country they loved.
Seen mostly through the eyes of Slava Fetisov, a defenseman who captained the squad, the film credits brilliant coach Anatoly Tarasov with creating a pass-first finesse game, and adapting techniques he had learned from chess grandmasters and the Bolshoi Ballet to help with psychological training and the artistic aspects of the sport.
But Tarasov was replaced by Viktor Tikhonov, a former KGB agent who ran the team as if it were composed of prisoners in the gulag, holding as many as four practices a day and keeping the players away from their families for months at a time. This didn’t stop the Red Army team from blowing away almost all opponents, but when they lost the “Miracle on Ice” game to a bunch of U.S. college kids, Tikhonov fired some veteran players and increased the work load.
Still, that team managed to win gold at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, and its Five Man Unit, with Fetisov and Vladislav Tretiak in goal, is widely regarded as the greatest hockey team ever.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, players saw opportunities in the NHL, and some defected. Fetisov, loyal to his country, would not defect, but quit the team. For this, he was blacklisted, spied on and beaten by thugs. Eventually told he could sign with the NHL if he gave 90 percent of his contract back to the government, Fetisov refused. He was eventually allowed to leave, and in 1997, with four Russian teammates, helped the Detroit Red Wings win the Stanley Cup.
All this is told with a brilliant mix of archival footage and interviews, with Fetisov, now back in Russia and minister of sport, providing much of the commentary. And you don’t have to be a Carolina Hurricanes fan to enjoy the film (I don’t care at all about the sport), since the issues it raises extend beyond athletics into the personal and political.
At the end, “Red Army” raises an interesting point. These players labored in a rigid system for little money, but they cared for each other and were the essence of “team.” Now, with over 30 Russians active in the NHL, Fetisov wonders if huge contracts haven’t corrupted the sport. “We lost our pride. We lost our soul,” he says. And he may be right.
A Cast: Slava Fetisov, Scotty Bowman, Anatoli Karpov
Director: Gabe Polsky
Length: 1 hour, 16 minutes
Rating: PG (thematic material and language)