- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Most Americans of a certain age recall 1980’s “Miracle on Ice” at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, where a scrappy band of collegiate hockey players defeated the heavily favored Soviets in an epic showdown on ice. (The contest was turned into the 2004 film “Miracle,” starring Kurt Russell as coach Herb Brooks.)

What Americans saw as a picture-perfect ending to a Cold War showdown was, for the defeated Soviets, a mere hiccup in a decade of domination on the ice.

The new documentary “Red Army,” which opens in the District of Columbia on Friday, follows several members of the Soviet hockey team through the 1980s as they relate the unending training, the love of country and, most important, the artfulness of their style of play. The film is directed by Gabe Polsky, a Ukrainian-American who played hockey while growing up in Chicago and as an undergraduate at Yale.

“I was a pretty serious hockey player,” Mr. Polsky says of his youth. “I had a coach who was one of the first from the former Soviet Union. It really kind of shook me a little bit, as an athlete, the way he looked at sports. The way he approached it was totally different from what I was used to.”

Mr. Polsky recalls how the coach drilled the team in ways atypical in the U.S. It was from that experience that Mr. Polsky became fascinated with the Soviet style of play — free-flowing and artistic — versus the “more aggressive” hockey typical in North America and with the resulting political dissonance.

“I had basically seen [the Soviets] play on a VHS tape for the first time in 1987,” Mr. Polski said. “It was the Canada Cup, considered by many to be the greatest hockey ever: [Wayne] Gretzky against the greatest Soviets. It was like a religious experience a creative revolution in sport. The artistic approach — the weaving, the combinations, the chemistry — it was just incredible. It was like a symphony.

“And it confused me a little bit, because in a society that is so brutally repressive, how was this sort of ‘free’ hockey going on? It’s funny because they describe the Soviets as robots, right? But they play like artists, whereas in the U.S. they play like robots.”

Mr. Polsky, intrigued by his own ethnic background combined with his passion for hockey, sought out members of the former Soviet team, hoping against hope that they might speak to him on camera.

He was put in touch with goalie Vladislav Tretiak, which, through a chain of events, led to more interviews until he got to the film’s “star,” Vyacheslav Fetisov, the charismatic defenseman — known colloquially as “Slava” — who speaks in heavily accented English throughout the film.

“He was reluctant, but ultimately agreed to meet me for 15 minutes, and it turned into five hours,” Mr. Polsky said of Mr. Fetisov.

Mr. Fetisov, 56, at first comes across as awkward on camera. In his opening scene, he toys with his phone and barely acknowledges Mr. Polsky’s questions. At one point, he raises his middle finger during an inquiry before putting his phone away.

In one of the film’s most striking moments, Mr. Polsky asks Mr. Fetisov what he recalls of the Miracle on Ice. Mr. Polsky cuts back and forth between a grinning Mr. Fetisov — framed cunningly and backlit by a single lamp — with footage of the U.S. win.

The film follows Mr. Fetisov and his teammates through their 1980s dominance all the way up to the fall of the USSR in 1991. Rapidly changing from socialism to capitalism entailed huge growing pains for Russia, including for its sports culture.

The NHL had been calling for years on players from outside North America, and Scandinavians such as the Edmonton Oilers’ Jari Kurri and Esa Tikkanen had begun coming in numbers in the 1980s.

While Mr. Fetisov and his teammates were eager to move overseas to play pro, Russian authorities were hesitant to let their cultural stars leave for wealth in their Cold War opponent. Mikhail Gorbachev’s “glasnost” policy, which opened a new chapter in relations with the U.S., allowed for Soviet players to take the ice in the NHL.

“I didn’t want it to be sort of a historical film or even focus too much on politics,” Mr. Polsky said, “but it’s really, at its core, a human story that anyone can relate to, about a guy who is proud to be a part of his country and become the hero, but ultimately has to fight the system that kind of created him, and his loyalty is kind of tested to the limit. Ultimately, it’s about the nature of patriotism and friendship, creativity and human progress.”

Ultimately, Mr. Fetisov enjoyed a tremendous pro career with the New Jersey Devils and the Detroit Red Wings, capturing back-to-back Stanley Cups with the latter and helping to usher in an era in which players from the former Soviet bloc became as common as Canadians.

“A lot of people here in the West don’t have any [knowledge of what] shaped Russia and the people,” said Mr. Polsky. “We just don’t understand it, and it’s sort of what the media tells us. But this movie puts a face on that experience in human terms.”

Mr. Polsky shot much of the film in Russia, well before U.S. sanctions resulting from Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Crimea.

“I never really had many problems,” Mr. Polsky said of his trips to Russia. “I kind of stayed low-key and told them I was making a hockey film. If I said ‘hockey and politics,’ there would be a red flag.

“I wanted the Russians to like this film, obviously for economic reasons a little, but more so because it’s a story about them. If they didn’t think it was authentic or truthful, it would be a failure. It’s as if a Russian were to come here and say, ‘I’m going to make a film about the Miracle’” on Ice, he said.

After retiring from hockey, Mr. Fetisov returned home to Moscow, went on to a career in politics and became instrumental in helping secure last year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. He is friendly with Mr. Putin, and has even taught him to skate.

“Even before things started to get bad,” Mr. Polsky says of the situation in Crimea, “I would ask, ‘Is it really that bad?’ and he said that it’s like the worst it’s ever been — even when he was a player for the Soviet Union.

“But his goal, like any politician here [in the U.S.], is to [work for the good] of [his] country and whoever he represents. So you can’t blame a guy for doing that.”

Red Army” premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, a venue that rarely, if ever, accepts documentaries, especially about sports.

“That was unusual to have Slava there on the red carpet,” Mr. Polsky said of the iconic French festival. “He said, ‘Gabe, I’ve won every medal there is to win in hockey, in politics and stuff like that, but this is like walking on water.’ He didn’t even want to [go], but he basically called me back [because] his daughter and wife wanted to go. Then he fully supported it.”

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