Movie review: Red Army (2014)

Who doesn’t remember the stunning US victory in hockey over the Soviets at the 1980 Olympics? (For those who missed it or simply want to revisit it, check out the movie Miracle.)

Red Army touches on this embarrassment for the Soviets, but the documentary is so much more. Hockey—and sports in general—were proxies in the Cold War. Victory was interpreted to mean that one economic system was better than the other. In the 1950s, it certainly looked like the Soviet Union was winning. In 1956, Khrushchev spoke those famous words—we will bury you—and the USSR was on the road to doing just that, whether in space or in sports.

Red Army focuses on Slava Fetisov, the captain of the Soviet National Team, but includes interviews with some of his teammates. The look into how the Soviet Union recruited and trained their hockey team is fascinating, and reveals the deep divide between American and Soviet culture—one based on the individual, the other on the collective.

When asked about the personalities of the different players, one member couldn’t really respond to the question; it was nonsensical to him. They were a group, the hockey team, not individuals. The team trained together, lived together, and was taught to work as one. This is a far cry from hockey players elsewhere and led to the inevitable clash when former Soviet hockey players began playing n the NHL. The tactics and method of play that worked so beautifully when the team was composed of Soviets crashed and burned in teams composed of both Westerners and Soviets.

The training that these players received in the sixties and seventies was under the tutelage of Tarasev. Training was not just strength training, but involved strategy and creativity. The hockey team lived and trained in close proximity with the national chess team. They were taught strategy to use on the ice. Hockey for Tarasev was not just a brute strength sport, though the members trained multiple times a day with weights; it was about agility and creativity. The players were dancing on the ice, weaving in between players with an agility that flummoxed Western teams. The Russian Five were unstoppable. They were a close-knit unit, closer than friends, closer than brothers. They operated as a unit.

The hockey team seemed unstoppable. The beginning of the end may have been when the coach, Tarasev, was removed and replaced by Tikhonov, who was a protégé of the KGB chief. As beloved as Tarasev seemed to be, Tikhonov was as hated. Tikhonov lost no love on his players. Training under him became relentless, with the players little more than imprisoned conscripts. The love of country ran deep, very deep, and thoughts of defection were nowhere to be found. But the years of deprivation from family and rest started to take its toll.

In the late eighties, the Soviet Union started to allow Soviet hockey players to leave to play for the NHL. The reason? Financial. The USSR was in dire financial straits. The communist experiment was nearing its end. Fetisov was offered a position and was eager to play for the NHL but there was a catch. The USSR only let players play for the NHL on the condition that most of their contracted salary would go to the USSR. Fetisov refused. He was denied any venue to practice or train in the USSR; to give him space would result in the death of those that helped him. Instead, Fetisov turned to his former coach, Tarasev, and trained on his land and under his tutelage.

Eventually Fetisov did get out to the NHL, able to retain his full contracted salary with the NHL. The Soviets who entered the NHL and the American hockey-watching public both had a rude awakening. The individual Soviet stars that NHL teams recruited did not bring sudden wins to the American teams. The styles of American and Soviet hockey players were too divergent. They didn’t mesh: the individual vs. the collective. The Soviet players found that the Americans lacked any style, were too individualist in their play, and lacked any creativity. Americans could care less about the beautiful dance that the Russians did on the ice; they wanted results.

Results finally came when the Detroit Red Wings recruited five former Red Army players. The five played as a unit, all trained in the Soviet style to work seamlessly as a team. The coach stayed out of their way and magic happened on the ice.

In the early 2000s, Putin reached out to Fetisov, stating that it was time for him to come home. Putin offered him the position of Minister of Sport, which Fetisov accepted. In the meantime, much in the country had changed. Fetisov left one country (USSR) and returned to another (Russia). On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned, signaling the end of the Soviet Union. What replaced it was a country adrift in corruption.

Red Army is a fascinating look into politics, cultural differences, the impact of the individual vs. the collective, and hockey. Even if you have no interest in sports or hockey, Red Army is a fascinating look into the history and politics of the Cold War.

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