When sports fans think about dynasties, there are certain names that come to mind. The New York Yankees have dominated Major League Baseball for nearly a hundred years. The Chicago Bulls of the nineties ruled the basketball courts. The National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers won five Super Bowls in the eighties and early nineties. But perhaps the most successful dynasty of all time worked its magic on the ice, and we’re not talking about the Montreal Canadiens. For a long time, the most feared hockey team on the planet was the USSR Men’s National Ice Hockey Team, and they are the subject of a fascinating new documentary called Red Army.
Red Army tells the story of the club through the eyes of mostly one man: Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, defenseman and long-time captain of the team. Writer/director Gabe Polsky (The Motel Life) uses interviews with Slava, along with several of his teammates and coaches, to paint a draconian view of the entire system of Soviet Hockey. Slava tells about how he and other boys would try out at a very young age for the National Team, and those who made the cut would be drafted into the Soviet Army with the sole purpose of playing hockey on the international stage. The players interviewed in the film don’t make it sound like it was a lost childhood, however; Slava loved hockey, and was good enough at it to have it become his job, so he considered himself lucky – remember, this was the communist Soviet Union, after all. Slava recalls the ups and downs of life as a Soviet hockey player with a lot of heart, a dash of humor…and even a little bit of anger.
Even though the Red Army Hockey Team won just about every world championship tournament from the fifties until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and brought home the Olympic gold seven times in that timespan, most Americans remember them for a game that they lost: the 1980 Olympic medal round game in which they were beaten by a rag-tag group of American college kids, a game that has gone down in sports history as the “Miracle on Ice.” The game was played during Slava’s first Olympics, and Red Army only touches briefly upon the game, but it is clearly a sore spot for Slava – to this day, he is hurt and upset over the loss, still believing that his team should have won. However, they didn’t, and the American victory was a huge lift for a country that, quite frankly, needed it at the time. Red Army gives the Soviet side of the story, but doesn’t stop there.
For hockey fans, Red Army’s biggest draw will be the game and practice footage of the team in action. For a country that was represented in pop culture by icons like the WWF’s Nikolai Volkoff and Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago, the Soviet National Team played with a surprising amount of skill and finesse. In fact, many of the interview subjects in the film, Slava included, claimed that the team approached hockey more like a chess match or a ballet dance than a contact sport, and the video clips of the team’s dominating style of play supports those statements. Red Army even shows the Russian players failure to convert to the more rough-and-tumble type of game when they began to defect to the west and play in the NHL. It wasn’t until the Detroit Red Wings acquired The Russian Five – a group of Soviet players in the 1990s that was put together to emulate the Red Army style of speed and skill play – that Russian players had significant impact in the NHL. Slava was one of The Russian Five, and Red Army contains plenty of video of the fearsome unit in action.
But Red Army is about much more than just hockey. It gives a face and voice to the players who, until recently, were thought of by many Americans as “the enemy.” The film shows the stress and strife of the player’s lives, the merciless training and uncompromising standards of the coaches, and the endless bureaucracy that the players faced from the Soviet Ministry of Sport when they expressed interest in playing for the NHL. The heroes of the film are the players, with special emphasis on Viacheslav Fetisov. The real antagonists of the movie, and the historical situation, are the Russian sports officials, specifically longtime Soviet National Team coach Viktor Tikhonov. Tikhonov is not a popular figure amongst the interview subjects, with each and every ex-player recounting and recalling how much they loathed the man. Slava even tells of a plan that the players had considered to throw the world championship game in an effort to get Tikhonov fired. The Russians may have been perceived as the enemies of the U.S., but Tikhonov was the real villain.
The “Miracle on Ice” days may be fondly remembered in America, but they are as long gone as the Cold War that spawned them. Now, countries send professional athletes to the Olympics, so the Men’s Ice Hockey tournament looks like an NHL all-star game. The Russians send millionaire superstars like Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin to play instead of the enlisted hockey-playing soldiers of the past. Red Army is a nostalgic look back to a time when the Olympics were pure and innocent…and dominated by the greatest dynasty to ever grace a sheet of ice.