Doc­u­men­tary lifts the cur­tain on ice hockey

Cecil Whig - - ACCENT - By J ill Cluf f

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.

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