LOS ANGELES (AP) - Gabe Polsky wouldn’t stop pestering him, so Slava Fetisov grudgingly promised 15 minutes to the American making a documentary about the Soviet Union as reflected through its dominant Red Army hockey team.
When the Hall of Fame defenseman finally met Polsky in Moscow, they ended up spending 18 hours together over three days, remembering and examining the halcyon days of arguably the greatest Soviet sporting institution.
Fetisov gradually realized this first-time documentarian had provided him with much more than an opportunity to remind the world about the brilliance of the smooth-skating, slick-passing Red Army club and, of course, the Soviet national team that is now best remembered in the West only as the victims of the Miracle on Ice in the 1980 Olympics.
“I don’t know, for some reason I felt I could support this guy,” Fetisov said. “It was important to let the West know what we went through. He wanted to talk about the whole story. Most guys only want to talk about one story.”
That would be the United States’ upset victory over the Soviets at Lake Placid in a game that loomed over the Cold War until the USSR’s dissolution. Fetisov often gets blank stares outside Russia when he reminds people that the Soviets and their Unified Team successor won the next three Olympics and seven of eight world championships with flair, teamwork and an unmatched consistency.
But Fetisov, the longtime Red Army captain, seized the chance to describe his lengthy struggle to escape the Soviet team’s grip to pursue an NHL career, which ended with two Stanley Cup titles for the Detroit Red Wings.
“That’s why I appreciate what Gabe did, to show the world what I went through,” Fetisov said. “Maybe this will change the historical thinking, not only for the hockey, but for the future generations.”
Fetisov’s groundbreaking career is at the center of “Red Army,” Polsky’s evocative documentary currently opening in wider release around North America.
The film, which has received wildly positive reviews since premiering at Cannes last year, gives viewers a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain and a chance to see the players charged with the daunting task of being the sporting manifestation of the Soviets’ military and political power.
“Red Army” is much more than a sports movie: Polsky’s interviews humanize the monolithic Soviet machine. Fetisov recalls his parents’ years of sacrifice just to put skates on his feet, while the players’ bitter memories of famed coach Viktor Tikhonov belie their success under his dictatorial reign.
“It’s a story that’s largely unknown in the West, because we don’t understand the Russian experience, what they went through,” Polsky said. “This film puts a human face on what Russia was and is.”
Polsky played hockey at Yale after growing up in Chicago as the son of Ukrainian immigrants. He has worked alongside celebrated German filmmaker and documentarian Werner Herzog, whose inventive spirit runs through several moments in “Red Army,” such as an interview with a former KGB handler in a sunny park while a young girl blithely plays in the background among towering Soviet icons and statues.
The documentary blends remarkable archival footage - acquired through untold hours of sifting through Russian film archives - alongside insightful interviews and eye-catching graphics. And while “Red Army” is a cultural document, hockey is at its heart.
“What I think the Soviets did for sport, not just hockey, was a revolution,” Polsky said. “It was like what the Beatles did for music. These guys did the same thing for sport. It was a cultural revolution. It was the most creative expression of sport we’ve ever seen.”
The film’s most touching moments chronicle Fetisov’s relationship with Anatoli Tarasov, the coach who built the Red Army into a powerhouse. Tarasov was remarkably innovative for his time and place, studying chess and dancing to foster creativity in his players.
Polsky unearthed remarkable footage of Tarasov at his dacha with Fetisov, and the defenseman’s heart warmed at the reminders of the coach, who died in 1995.
“I would never forget this man,” Fetisov said. “He was the best coach in the world, but he was not just my coach. He was my mentor, my teacher. I try to follow what he has done.”
Fetisov’s feelings are less fond for Tikhonov, who presided over the Red Army’s dominant run from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. Leonid Brezhnev himself replaced Tarasov with Tikhonov, who kept his players confined to training for 11 months per year at times, refusing requests to spend time with dying parents.
Fetisov eventually fell out with Tikhonov and the Red Army team, beginning his protracted struggle to move to North America. He refused to give a large portion of his NHL contract to the government, delaying his departure until he finally won his freedom by going head-to-head with Dmitri Yazov, the Soviets’ minister of defense.
Fetisov tells the whole story in “Red Army” in riveting detail.
“I thought it was important to open the gate for the Soviet hockey players, to be an ambassador and to fight the system that didn’t allow you to do what you think was right,” he said. “It was bigger than just to make money.”
Three years after he nearly declined to participate in the documentary, Fetisov is its public face, appearing everywhere from the red carpet to “The Daily Show” to promote the story of his beloved team and the film’s cultural message.
The defenseman never imagined “Red Army” would make such an impact on so many moviegoers who aren’t even sports fans, but he understands its resonance.
“It’s a good example of how people can be successful,” Fetisov said. “When you get the right teammates, you can do lots of stuff. That’s why maybe it touched people who never knew about hockey.”
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