Red Army

The most dominant five-man hockey unit in history.

The most dominant five-man hockey unit in history.

(2014) Documentary (Sony Classics) Viacheslav Fetisov, Scotty Bowman, Alexei Kasatonov, Vladislav Tretiak, Vladimir Pozner, Vladimir Krutov, Felix Nechepore, Anatoli Karpov, Tatiana Tarasova. Directed by Gabe Polsky

There is always talk among sports fans about the greatest team in history of their chosen sports. For hockey fans, they will endlessly debate whether the greatest team was the Montreal Canadiens of Rocket Richard or Jean Beliveau, or the Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky, or the New York Islanders of Mike Bossy. However, there are many who are absolutely certain that the Soviet Red Army team of the 70s and 80s was the most dominant and the most highly skilled team to ever take to the ice.

There is a good deal of merit to that argument. This was a team that possessed the best goaltender on earth in Vladislav Tretiak, as well as the greatest player in the world – Viacheslav Fetisov, who was in many senses the best defenseman to ever play the game, including Bobby Orr. Fetisov became the face of Soviet hockey; a fast skater, disciplined defender, and maybe as smart a player who ever played the game.

The Soviets played a game in which even the NHL’s best at the time were left chasing their snow. NHL hockey of the period was brutish and slow compared to the grace and artistry of the Soviet players; there were few North American skaters who could keep up with the Soviets. They dominated international competition of the day, spurred on by their embarrassing defeat at the hands of the severely undermanned American team in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Considering that less than a month before the Olympics they’d manhandled the American team in Madison Square Garden by a score of 10-3, it truly was a miracle on ice. The Soviets didn’t believe in miracles and the fall-out was severe.

Behind the grace and artistry was a relentless system that demanded commitment and sacrifice. While much of the style of play of the Soviets was developed by the jovial Anatoli Tarasov, the genial coach who was beloved by his players was dismissed by more political elements within the Politburo and replaced with the icy Viktor Tikhanov. The Soviet players to a man despised their coach who was cold, unfeeling and treated his players as little more than game pieces, denying one player the request to return home to be with his dying father who eventually passed away.

This documentary is told primarily from the perspective of Slava Fetisov who went from being the face of Soviet hockey to a political liability when he spoke out openly against conditions that forced brutal workouts leaving players “pissing blood” as he puts it. Slava, who today is the Minister of Sport in Putin’s Russia, is constantly working his cell phone and often interrupts the interview to take a call or a text. I’m sure Polsky wondered if Errol Morris ever had to put up with this.

The footage of the Soviet hockey team in action is absolutely compelling and of course American hockey fans will still love revisiting the final moments of the Miracle on Ice game in which sportscaster Al Michaels screamed “Do you believe in miracles? YES!!!!” I don’t know about you but that still send shivers down my spine.

It is the footage of the Soviet team though that I found even more interesting as American audiences rarely got to see them in action. The Soviet philosophy was to have five man units that worked together rather than the North American philosophy of having separate forward and defense units. The result was the Big Five, a line-up of Fetisov and Alex Kasatonov on the blue line, and up front Sergei Makharov, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov. Makharov and Larionov played early on for the San Jose Sharks, my favorite hockey team, and were part of the team that upset the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs. They are a lasting part of my hockey fan past.

This is a documentary about a hockey team, sure, but there’s more to it than that. We see what life was like in a postwar Russia, rebuilding from the destruction leveled against it by the Nazis in which families were crammed into apartments that we would consider studio apartments meant for a single person. A system in which fish was only available one day a week – “Fish Thursday,” Fetisov chuckles. It was a day most looked forward to.

Fetisov is often acerbic and has a sense of humor that is rather dry. He doesn’t show a lot of emotion except when talking about the car accident that took the life of his younger brother, an accident where he was behind the wheel for. He quickly deflects further questioning on the subject; it’s clearly something he doesn’t like talking about. He went through some difficult times; after quitting the National Team in protest of Tikhanov’s treatment of his players, he was briefly jailed and beaten, his family threatened. He talks about these things dispassionately and without any rancor.

These days Fetisov is an important cog in the Russian sports wheel. He was one of the main players in getting the Winter Olympics to Sochi and is proud of the games that were held there. He is a supporter of Putin’s government, understandably so since he has flowered and prospered as a politician under Putin. He is also clearly proud of his achievements as an athlete, while deflecting praise about his stands against the abuses of the Soviet system in ice hockey that led to players being allowed to play in the NHL, albeit with much of their salaries going to the Soviet government. He seems to have a strong streak of justice in him; one wonders what he thinks of the Russian involvement in the Ukraine although I suspect he wouldn’t say anything negative about any of Putin’s policies. I might be wrong on that score, however; Fetisov is used to speaking out against that which he disagrees with.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful archival hockey footage. Interesting peek behind the Iron Curtain.
REASONS TO STAY: Fetisov plays his emotional cards very close to the vest. Hockey fans may end up being disappointed at the socio-political content; non-hockey fans may end up disappointed at the hockey content.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s really nothing here that isn’t suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Werner Herzog was one of the producers of this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
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