Documentary lifts the curtain on ice hockey
All sports have a degree of glorified violence, but none seem so dangerous as the one staged on a sheet of ice and played by men with huge sticks.
The documentary “Red Army” showed hockey in a way I’d never seen it before: as a kind of dance, with five players weaving ever so precisely in, out and around.
But make no mistake, this film is not about dancing. It’s not even really about hockey. It’s about the former Soviet Union’s version of hockey and how the game was manipulated to become a political stratagem during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Filmmaker Gabe Polsky (who himself has Russian parentage) takes the utmost care to pull back the curtain on this mysterious and manipulative Cold War world.
The heart of the film revolves around Viacheslav Fetisov, affectionately known as “Slava” — a kind of Russian Wayne Gretsky (though even Gretsky looks up to him as a hockey legend). As the film opens we receive a rough first impression of Slava — he’s curt, arrogant and seemingly antiAmerican.
As the film progresses, we begin to see and understand him in a completely different light. Hockey was life in the USSR for decades. There may not have been much food on the table, but there was always a hockey game to be played.
The government paid close attention to those who rose above their peers. Those lucky few were asked to join the “Red Army,” a sort of propaganda machine that used a sports team to teach the world about Russian superiority. Players were told it was an honor to be chosen.
When the boys arrived at training camp, they realized they were anything but lucky. There were no breaks, no vacations. Grueling workouts allowed for absolutely no visitation of family or friends. The isolation was so extreme that one player was denied permission to visit his dying father.
But no one could deny the results. The Russians played in a way that was flawless, impeccable and unbeatable. Not only did they dominate every team they played, they did so repeatedly. Then the 1980 Olympic Games happened: an untested U.S. team full of college novices achieved the upset of all time and bested the Russians.
Suddenly things were different. Defection became more and more commonplace. The NHL started scooping up Russian players right and left. The Detroit Red Wings (a team even I am familiar with) featured an all-Russian starting line — in fact, they were the same “Russian Five” who dominated the sport for their home country only a few years earlier.
If it weren’t all true, this story would be completely unbelievable. This is a movie sports fans and non-hockey people alike can enjoy because it’s not just about the sport. It’s about the rise and fall of an entire nation, and the brave men who shouldered its political burdens by batting around a puck. Even I can appreciate that.
Just don’t ask me to watch the NHL any time soon.
Jill Cluff is a sometimes librarian who is married to one giant and mom to two boys. She loves all things book- and food-related – often at the same time.