Raw Red Deal

‘Red Army’ documentary takes us behind the scenes of the 1980 Olympics and the Soviet Union hockey team

The Soviet Union's hockey players were portrayed by the media as villains who needed to be vanquished in the final year of Jimmy Carter's presidency. America was feeling a little tired and put upon, the Cold War was in full swing, and somebody needed to get their ass kicked. Who better than those nasty Russian hockey players, right?

"Red Army" is a winning documentary that looks at those villainous Soviet puck smackers through interviews with the actual players, mainly defense player Vlacheslav Fetisov, who rose to the ranks of team captain during his young playing career. Eventually, like many Russian players, Fetisov played in the NHL, most notably with the Detroit Red Wings, where he played on two Stanley Cup teams in '97 and '98.

As the documentary shows, Fetisov and his fellow Russian players went through a lot of hell behind the scenes. They were punished brutally if they lost games, some of them forced to train until they pissed blood. If family members were dying, it didn't matter to coach Viktor Tikhonov, who restricted his team members from leaving if there was a game to be played. In short, these guys often got a raw deal.

When the team toured, such as for their historic 1980 Olympics, KGB closely monitored them. Defections were rare, but they happened. Fetisov reveals that no matter how rough things got, leaving his country illegally was not an option. He's a very proud guy.

Director Gabe Polsky was originally supposed to get just a few minutes to interview Fetisov for the doc. He wound up getting 18 hours over a few days. One of the film's charms is Fetisov's banter, and frequent annoyance with Polsky. He even flips him off just a few minutes into the film while ignoring him and looking at his phone. At other times, Fetisov seems to really warm up during the interviews, and he reveals a very human story behind the Russian legends.

When Perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union were in play, the Russian government publicly said their players were free to pursues NHL careers in America. Behind the scenes, as Fetisov describes, it was a very different story. The players were threatened with being shipped off to Siberia and their families were harassed. When players were allowed to leave for the NHL, they had to ship major parts of their salaries back to Russia.

I was 11 years old when the "Miracle on Ice" occurred, and I was a diehard baseball fan. I totally didn't care that the Americans beat the Russians, and I just wanted the New York Mets baseball season to start.

I remember how that victory sent everybody into a Russian-hating frenzy. If anything, that hockey victory truly introduced my young self to the notion that we had a real problem with Russia, and it sent my adolescent fears about nuclear war into full-blown anxiety. So, I sort of resented that particular Olympics for making me more aware of my impending doom.

Now, seeing Fetisov reminiscing about the mostly bad but sometimes good times he and his fellow players experienced, I'm feeling a lot of sympathy for those guys 35 years later. Some of them, including Fetisov, have returned to Russia (Fetisov has a political post, appointed by Putin himself). Late in the film, Fetisov speaks of how much his country has changed since the days of being trained by that bastard Tikhonov.

Those players should've been having the time of their lives when they toured the world for sport. Instead, they were getting mulched into dust by Mother Russia, thrown out there as country reps at a time when Russia had a lot of hate pointed their way.

As "Red Army" shows, some of those players put together some decent lives in the face of monstrous adversity. And some of them even got a chance to play on the same team as the players who beat them on that big Olympic day in 1980, the day that made me keenly aware that I could blow up at any second.