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Better Red Than Dead: Director Gabe Polsky Revisits the Cold War Through Hockey

Press Play By Mike Spry | Press Play March 27, 2014 at 12:17PM

Filmmaker Gabe Polsky’s upcoming documentary RED ARMY “tells the story of the most dominant sports team in history: the Soviet Union’s Red Army ice hockey team.”
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Sport is nothing if not a battle of ideologies. The West Coast offense versus the Option. Tradition versus sabermetrics. Defense wins championships. In the Cold War era, international sport provided a unique look into all manners of ideology, from citizens’ approach to sport to the all-encompassing Communism versus Social Democracy debate. From Olympic boycotts to defections to Rocky IV, sport provided a venue for discussion of larger issues of ideology through the microcosm of its very nature and metaphor. Nowhere was this more evident than in hockey.


As a Canadian, I was taught the greatest hockey team of all-time was the 1972 Team Canada that beat the Soviets at the Summit Series. Paul Henderson’s series-clinching goal had as much magnitude as our national anthem. Similar arguments were made of the 1987 Canada Cup team that boasted both Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. That’s the greatest hockey I’ve ever seen, or likely ever will see.

For Americans, I imagine a similar argument could be made for the 1980 Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid (they’d be wrong, but my nationalist bias causes me to digress), if not for the team then for the virtue of its victory. But history is born of nationalism, written not so much by the victors, as Winston Churchill suggested, but rather by those with a medium with which to argue who was the greatest, who were the heroes, the villains, and indeed the victors. Filmmaker Gabe Polsky’s upcoming documentary Red Army “tells the story of the most dominant sports team in history: the Soviet Union’s Red Army ice hockey team.” 

Polsky is the son of Russian-Ukrainian immigrants, and grew up in Chicago. He played hockey at Yale. I don’t for a second doubt his credentials as a hockey documentarian (even though my Canadian passport demands I should) nor his affection for his subject matter (it is infectious). But my immediate reaction, as a Canadian, as a hockey fan, to the above quote from the film’s production company was: I’ve got a whole country that disagrees with you. However, I will admit, Polsky’s argument is compelling. And according to its director, Red Army is about more than hockey. It’s about an era. It’s about the rise and fall of an ideology, and the end of the Cold War.

While North American hockey was, and is, built around stars, the Red Army team was more interested in the collective. As Polsky says, “A lot of Soviet ideology ended up in sport. They didn’t emphasize the individual.” This shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, as the Red Army team was the international face of a communist dictatorship. They took their brand of hockey and social order around the world, to battle on the ice and in spectators’ minds.

As a student of the game, I had always believed that creativity was born of individuals such as Gretzky, Orr, Lemieux, who took us out of our seats to revel in their artistry. Interestingly, Polsky argues the opposite, that it is the collective approach that truly bred creativity, likening it to “what Brazilians did with soccer… [they’re] more creative and they have more style to the game, brought a more artistic approach to the game. A more beautiful game.”

Red Army uses Soviet defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov as a narrator of sorts, a vehicle through which to tell the film’s story. Fetisov played through “three generations of Soviet teams,” and was one of the first wave of Russians to be allowed to play in the NHL. What’s compelling for Polsky, a hockey fan who grew up during these eras, is the transition of Fetisov from enemy (on the Red Army teams), to sympathetic character (in his desire to play in the NHL), to endearing fan favorite (in his later years with the Detroit Red Wings). Polsky sees Fetisov as the ultimate embodiment of the Cold War, from its rise to its eventual fall.

If Fetisov’s story represents the arc of the protagonist, then the story’s antagonist is Viktor Tikhonov, the head coach of the Red Army team during its most dominant era. Tikhonov was the communist dictator of a team during a communist dictatorship. To his team, he was the USSR itself. When I was growing up, invested and engrossed in the later era Super Series and the 1987 Canada Cup, I recall thinking Tikhonov’s embodiment of evil was straight out of a Bond film, and indeed Polsky calls him a “perfect villain.”

The director recalls a story of Vladislav Tretiak, perhaps the greatest goaltender to ever strap on pads, asking his coach if he could train at home because he wanted to see his family. Tikhonov told him “no” and that if he didn’t train with the collective he “wasn’t playing.” Contrast this with Tretiak’s rival and competition for the greatest goalie ever title, the Montreal Canadiens’ Ken Dryden, who sat out during the 1973-74 season over a contract dispute, and used that year to complete a law degree at McGill University. Perhaps nowhere better can we see the vast difference between the ideologies resting on opposite sides of the globe than in the dichotomy of the goaltenders’ narratives.

Just as communism never made it stateside, the practices of the Red Army team never became part of the habits of the NHL, with the exception of the Scotty Bowman-era Red Wings, who employed the Red Army’s 5-man units, as opposed to the North American system, which interchanges 4 forward lines and 3 defense pairings. Interestingly, Fetisov (who Bowman drafted in 1975 while coach of the Montreal Canadiens, despite knowing he’d never be allowed to come to the NHL) was a part of those team, as were Red Army disciples Vyacheslav Kozlov and Igor Larionov. Teams that notably won three Stanley Cups during Bowman’s tenure.

Bowman appears in Red Army, creating a bridge between ideologies and histories, as he also coached against the Red Army in the 1976 and 1981 Canada Cups, as well as what has been called the greatest game ever, the Red Army versus the Montreal Canadiens on New Year’s Eve 1975. But the NHL has always eschewed innovation, and the influence of the Red Army begins and ends with Bowman. But does the argument for the more virtuous system, in hockey and beyond, end there as well? The Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War ended and the Soviet Union with it. Russian players came to the NHL, and are now a staple in the league. Red Army will be a fascinating look into a part of hockey’s history rarely told, and an intriguing look into an era of the sport that defines its mythology.

Red Army (directed by Gabe Polsky and produced by Jerry Weintraub and Werner Herzog) will be released later this year.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJ. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). His next poetry collection, Bourbon & Eventide, is forthcoming in 2014 from Invisible Publishing. Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

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