“I don’t want em here, the players don’t want em here… and you’re gonna be sorry they’re over here.”
There was a clip in Gabe Polsky’s documentary Red Army, in which the fiercely loud Canadian patriot, Don Cherry sits on his pulpit and warns the Canadian public that the Soviets are here, and that they are not welcomed. For some Canadians, Don Cherry was (and in some facets, continues to be) the prism through which the game could be understood. Those aggressive words became a mantra for many Canadians, particularly after two decades of Cold War era hockey battles between us against them. They were labeled as Commies, enigmas and players that could not be trusted. Though that Coach’s Corner episode aired almost 25 years ago, there are pockets of North American hockey fans that continue to harbour the same cynicism against Russian hockey, and the players that they produce.
Polsky’s documentary, Red Army, which was introduced to the North American audience this evening at the Toronto International Film Festival, serves to help humanize the plight of the Soviet athlete who was forced to grow up in an oppressive dictatorial system. The best young athletes in the country were recruited by the military and placed on the centralized Red Army team (CSKA), where they were subjected to eleven months a year of intense training and dedication to hockey within a camp, with limited time to enjoy their youthful years with the families and friends. The documentary is told through the experience of Vyacheslav (Slava) Fetisov, who emerged as the country’s most reliable defenseman, and became the youngest captain of the national team. Through much hardship, Fetisov eventually moved to North America to play for the New Jersey Devils and captured back to back Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings.
Particularly striking was how despite the vast amounts of international success and fame that the Soviet stars, such as Fetisov, and teammates Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, Alexei Kasatonov and Vladimir Krutov accumulated, they were treated harshly by the sport’s administrators, and were discouraged from pursuing opportunities that were an affront to the collective. The chief taskmaster was their head coach, Viktor Tikhonov, who was also an officer of standing within the KGB.
There’s a scene in which Polsky shows Fetisov archival footage from the 1980 Winter Olympics, in which the Soviets lost to the underdog American team in Lake Placid. Though Fetisov has accomplished everything that one could hope to accomplish in hockey, he can barely watch, and is brought to tears. The scene helped reveal how many of these players played in fear of their coach, and brought back memories of the grueling training regimens and the psychological terror they were subjected to. Losing, even once, turned their lives into a sort of hell. It was also tragic how Tikhonov almost robbed the youthful days from the very same players who gave him so much. In one scene, a player was unable to get permission to see his dying father, because the club had a match the following day. I was particularly moved by seeing Vladimir Krutov. Upon arriving to North America in the early 1990s, Krutov was largely derided and dismissed by the Canadian media and subsequently the fans for poor performance, and problems with his weight. He failed in his attempts in North America, and returned to anonymity in Russia. In the film, we see Krutov as a sad, simple figure, who longs for the days of being with his four friends. Under Tikhonov, it appeared that even Krutov’s moments of greatest glory were tinged with some sadness and resentment, and the sadness hits home when the audience learns that Krutov died a month after his interview was filmed, at the young age of 52.
Although Fetisov was a decorated athlete, he was essentially imprisoned by the Soviet system. This became particularly evident during the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union could no longer keep up with Western economies, and started to open to the West with Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of Glasnost and Perestroika. Fetisov had become a veteran at that point, and had nothing left to win in hockey within the Soviet Union. He painfully describes how Tikhonov and the Soviet officials reneged on promises to allow him to pursue a career in North America and after they started to consider it, how they attempted to seek a handsome cut of Fetisov’s yearly earnings. He became dismayed by this, quit the national team, and was ostracized by many government officials in his country. Eventually, the government allowed him to leave, but not without a constant feeling of fear for him and his family.
Though much of the archival footage demonstrates that the Soviet training regimens and Tikhonov’s coaching tone are brutal beyond belief, Polsky gives praise to the way that the Soviets actually played hockey. They played artistically, with complete control of the puck, and a total team game. Polsky pays homage to Anatoli Tarasov, often considered the Father of Soviet Hockey. There is incredible footage of a portly Tarasov at the training sessions, and he is seen as a respected father figure to many players, including Fetisov himself. He is credited as being the creator of the Soviet Style of hockey, and the beautiful crisscrossing, total team style with which they play is artistically demonstrated. Scotty Bowman, the most successful North American coach of all time, pays Tarasov the ultimate compliment, by explaining how his Detroit Red Wings allowed the Russian Five from his two Stanley Cup teams to “improvise” and control the game, unlike anything the league had witnessed before, or since.
The documentary felt rich, well paced, and filled with incredible archival colour footage of Soviet training techniques, and classical hockey moments. It succeeds in explaining to us Canadians, why those Soviets from the Summit Series and the Canada Cups were so stone-faced, and almost robotic. More importantly, Gabe Polsky ultimately succeeds in demonstrating that these Soviet hockey players are humans too, and they have the similar virtues of character and heart, that Don Cherry and his ilk, value so much in our Canadian players.
Jaideep Kanungo, Hockeyland Canada