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'Red Army' depicts struggles of Russian players

The 2004 feature film “Miracle” is beloved in the hockey community for its depiction of Team USA’s victory over the high-powered Soviets at Lake Placid in the 1980 Olympics.

The miracle in Soviet hockey came a decade later, when players finally won the right to leave the Red Army and join professional teams in North America.

“Red Army,” a documentary directed by Gabe Polsky, goes above and beyond retelling the 1980 Olympics from the Soviet perspective, giving an in-depth look at what playing for the USSR’s national team really meant, as well as detailing the struggle and fear that surrounded players who tried to join the National Hockey League.

Polsky tells the story through the eyes of Slava Fetisov, a stud defenseman on the Red Army team who considered a lucrative offer to play in the United States as his passion for the Soviet team deteriorated. But each time he appeared set to leave, Soviet leaders went back on their word.

As the regime tried to embrace Glasnost, the Gorbachev ideal that called for increased openness in the late 1980s, Fetisov tells how the Politburo came up with “special offers” just for him, after he announced that he would no longer play for the Red Army.

The proposal: Once Fetisov joined the New Jersey Devils, the communist state would do him the favor of allowing him keep 10 percent of his NHL salary. No one had to know. It would be their little secret.

Fetisov declined.

“Then it was 20 percent, then it was 25 percent,” Fetisov recalls. “They called my mom, called my wife, they tried to scare them.”

Forward Igor Larionov reached a deal with the government to keep half of what he earned.

Finally, Fetisov was summoned to Moscow, where he met with Dmitry Yazov, the minister of defense.

“I’ll send you to Siberia. You’ll never get out,” Yazov yelled at a defiant Fetisov.

“But I never turned back. I left,” Fetisov said. “In 10 days, they gave me a passport and I was free of the army. The first multiple working entrance visa to United States.”

“Red Army” will undoubtedly draw comparisons to “Of Miracles and Men,” ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary that debuted last month prior to the 35th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice game Feb. 21. It also prominently featured Fetisov.

While both are riveting and enlightening for the hockey fan, they do have their differences. “Of Miracles and Men” took a much deeper look into the USA-USSR Olympic game, which I thoroughly enjoyed. ESPN brought Fetisov and his daughter, Anastasia, to the rink at the Lake Placid Olympic Center to recall many memories about the game.

“Red Army” spends much less time on the Soviet loss, though it did include video of a phone call between USA coach Herb Brooks and President Jimmy Carter that I had never seen before. After beating the Soviets, who used hockey as a metaphor to show their system was the world’s dominant culture, Brooks is shown telling Carter: “I think it just proves our way of life is the proper way to continue on.”

“Red Army” used 1980 as a launching pad for the story it wanted to tell, which was the struggle players faced getting out of their home country and the new problems ahead in North America.

Soviet players, who learned to be so creative and free under coach Anatoly Tarasov before becoming strictly regimented under Viktor Tikhonov, had trouble adapting to the North American game, which was more physical and individual.

The Red Army team trained together 11 months a year. Players operated in five-man units and created opportunities together. Every player was so adaptable and could read the game so well that when the Soviets joined the NHL, it was hard for them to acclimate to teammates who were clearly on different wavelengths.

Making matters worse, many people here didn’t want foreigners filling up the NHL. Full marks to “Red Army” for highlighting this intolerance with a clip of Don Cherry lashing out during “Coach’s Corner”: “I don’t want them here, the players don’t want them here and you’re going to be sorry they’re over here,” Cherry told his television audience about Soviet players.

Buffalonians may recall conflicting feelings in the league over forward Alexander Mogilny, whom the Sabres officials helped defect.

Fetisov was eventually traded to Detroit, where coach Scotty Bowman assembled the “Russian Five” – Larionov, Sergei Fedorov and Slava Kozlov up front with Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov on defense – which helped the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup in 1997.

Fetisov and Larionov went for a joint victory lap around the ice and held the Cup together.

Said Fetisov: “It’s true American dream, you know?”


"Red Army"

3 stars (out of 4)

Starring: Slava Fetisov, Scotty Bowman, Anatoly Karpov

Director: Gabe Polsky

Running time: 76 minutes

Rating: PG for thematic material and language.

The Lowdown: Documentary on the challenges faced by Soviet players trying to join the NHL. (In English and Russian with subtitles.)

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