Red Army examines Russian hockey 

click to enlarge Still-of-Viacheslav-Fetisov-in-Red-Army-2014.jpg

American producer, director and writer Gabe Polsky (The Motel Life) brings us Red Army, a documentary about one of the toughest and winningest hockey teams in history, told largely through the eyes of star player Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov.

He was born in Soviet Russia in 1958 and said there was no running water and no toilets in his home.

“[Even so,] I was a happy kid,” Fetisov said.

He was happy because he had a game to play: hockey.

At age 10, he joined the Red Army. By age 16, he was playing professional hockey. The nationwide system trained the “best of the best of the best,” including Fetisov, who practiced seven to eight hours a day.

Coach Anatoli Tarasov, often called the father of Russian hockey, ruled his team much like other leaders ran Russia: A win reflected the country’s superiority.

“Because of socialism — that’s why we’re the best,” said one player.

It was a form of propaganda, said another man.

Today, Fetisov claims he’s still happy. He flips off the interviewer. He’s proud and constantly interrupts documentary filming to check emails, take phone calls and talk to an off-camera colleague.

But when asked to describe how he felt 20 years ago, his tone changes.

Fetisov became the youngest captain in Red Army history, and he and four other men were dubbed the team’s undefeatable Russian Five.

As a teen, he went overseas with the Red Army to play Canadian teams as crowds of more than 10,000 watched. For the first time, he saw free markets. He bought his own shorts and pants. He was able to eat fish more than once a week.

“[Despite all that,] we beat them in all five games,” Fetisov said with a laugh.

Then came the 1980 Winter Olympics. The U.S. hockey team faced Red Army and won. Talking about it today, Fetisov still weeps. Training soon became a punishment.

“After that, there were players that pissed blood,” said one man. The men gave up their childhoods and families, and wanting anything outside of sport could end their careers.

However, Fetisov wanted his own contract, his own money and his own terms. The Soviet government reacted by telling him that he’d never play again anywhere, in any way.

To this, he said, “Thank you very much,” and joined the National Hockey League (NHL) anyway, playing with the New Jersey Devils and the Detroit Red Wings.

Soon, another player joined him.

“He escaped,” a former Soviet teammate said after calling him a traitor. Why did the government — or anyone else — even care? Its government believed “one defection would lead to a wave” that threatened Soviet power.

Since 1989, over 500 Russians have been drafted into the NHL. “It’s the American dream,” Fetisov said.

In 1997, he took the winning cup to Moscow because he wanted to share it with his country, but it wasn’t the same socialist regime he left decades before. He saw poverty, crime, rampant capitalism and disorder.

He now works 20 hours a day in politics. He carefully weighs every word, making it clear that how he felt 20 years ago is not how he feels today.

“I was sad,” he said.

Yet, sorrow permeates his tale. What is anyone willing to do to win? Is the sacrifice worth it — personally, professionally or even nationally? The Red Army, after all, taught players to fight for what they believed in, which was their country — until it wasn’t anymore.

Print headline: Team of one, A new documentary examines how the Red Army lived and breathed hockey.

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