I love hockey. I love documentary. I was pretty excited to check out Red Army, a doc about the standout Soviet hockey teams of the 70s and 80s. For a fairly small release, Red Army was receiving plenty of hype from a variety of mainstream sources, which further wetted my appetite.
Growing up playing hockey in the 70s, the specter of the Red Army team was ever present. They were the enemy. Though they were the evil empire, there was no denying that they were awesome. They kicked Canada’s butt. And though the Americans beat them at Lake Placid, any one in the know realized that had that game been played ten more times, the Russians would have won them all.
Red Army is a pretty entertaining doc focusing on more than just the formation of the team. It’s a glint into the Soviet political system and the industrial sports complex of the Cold War era. If you came of age in that era, there was no question that sports were a battleground that often stood in for political battles. Red Army acknowledges the Soviet necessity for fielding standout sporting teams to do battle on the international circuit.
Political machinations aside, at its core, Red Army showcases the trials and travails of the Red Army team members. Their training regimen was nuts. Players trained for 11 months out of the year, rarely spending time with their families. As a result, the Soviets played like a well-oiled machine. Each player was in complete sync with his line mates. The highlights of the team on the ice in Red Army are astounding. The Red Army’s starting five were absolute wizards. Their playmaking skills were a true thing of beauty. I assure you that you won’t see hockey of that caliber on a Tuesday night tilt between the Panthers and Jets. But their machine like dismantling of their opponents also turned them into communist automotons in the eyes of Western observers. Red Army does a great job of humanizing the players.
The documentary revolves around star defensemen Slava Fetisov, who would later go on to win a bunch of Stanley Cups for the mighty Red Wings. Fetisov was the team leader and the first player who bristled at the authoritarian yoke of the team and head coach Viktor Tikhonov. Fetisov’s desire to emigrate and jump ship to the NHL leads to punitive treatment from the team and the system that he lead to international glory.
While we now take for granted the international flavor of the NHL, it’s easy to forget the resistance put up to Soviets playing in the NHL. From the “their coming for our jobs stance” to the general distrust of commies in our midst, the transition of these Soviet stanouts to the NHL was incredibly difficult for the players and their families. Not only were they isolated by language, culture, and style of play, but many NHLers didn’t want them here. Fetisov, along with teammates Alexei Kasatonov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov were pioneers in bringing the Russian game to the U.S, but their transition was far from idyllic, often being viewed as foreign pariahs.
I definitely had a couple quibbles with the film. The majority of the big picture cultural/political perspective comes from Western analysts. I found it odd that a film so intent on showing a Soviet perspective, left the bird’s eye view of the political perspective in the hands of Western critics. I know the Western perspective of the Cold War. I wanted an Eastern Bloc perspective. Granted the players do shine some light on the matter and that’s when the film shines. I loved the Red Army teammates talking about their first trip to Canada and being overwhelmed by all the shopping options and their excitement at buying lots of blue jeans. More of this, please.
The other oddity in the film is how much of the film is dependent on Fetisov. All the reviews I read prior to seeing the film talked about how Fetisov’s story was at the core of the film, but I had no idea how truly focused the film was on Fetisov. I’m spitballing, but if I had to guess, Fetisov represents 60-70% of the interview time in the film. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a doc so heavily reliant on one interview subject. Had the film been called The Fetisov Story, I guess I’d accept, but for a film covering a broader landscape it comes off a bit odd. The film contains interviews with Fetisov’s defense partner Alexei Kasatonov, goalie great Vladislav Tretriak, and forward Vladimir Krutov. But their interviews were worthy of fourth line grinder ice time. These guys were some of the greatest to ever play the game, but they weren’t allotted top line minutes in the interview column. Nowhere to be found were star forwards Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov. I’m sure there was a reason no interviews were secured with those two amazing forwards, but given their prominence on the team and their successful NHL careers, their absence was felt.
But quibbles aside, Red Army is absolutely worth checking out.