There are two narratives most people follow when talking about the North American perception of Russian hockey at the height of the Cold War: Cynics will argue the Red Army team was a propaganda tool used by the Kremlin to show the country's athletic superiority — overshadowing the near-flawless style of play that brought home 12 world championships, one Canada Cup, and the gold medal at the Olympics every year from 1964 until 1988 (save for the infamous loss to the United States in the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980.) The other way of looking at it is as an athletic achievement that forever changed the sport of hockey.
"It was just artistry," is how documentarian and director Gabe Polsky describes first watching the 1987 Russian squad on VHS playing for the Canada Cup when he was a kid growing up in the suburbs outside of Chicago. In three games that all ended with a score of 6-5, the Russians inevitably lost to a Canadian team that included over ten future Hall of Fame players, including Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, and Mario Lemieux playing on the same line with Wayne Gretzky. It was the kind of dream team roster that young hockey fans drooled over; but Polsky was more interested in the Russians and their fast-moving, pass-heavy play that looked more like chess pieces moving effortlessly up the ice than the rougher brand of the sport played in the U.S. And Canada. The influence that tape had on him would stay with him all the way to Yale, where Polsky played center for the Bulldogs before moving on to directing films. And now with the documentary Red Army, Polsky has paid the highest tribute by directing the first feature-length documentary on the Russian players who inspired him.
Today, players from the former Soviet Union are on every NHL team, and they're some of the game's brightest stars. Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk is one of the best playmakers in the league; Washington's Alexander Ovechkin is one of the game's premiere players, as is Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, who constantly matches teammate Sydney Crosby's output. Russians have elevated the North American game since the 1990s; but as Polsky points out, fans don't know as much about the legacy of the older Russian teams and players: "When you ask people about Soviet hockey in North America, all they remember is the 'Miracle on Ice.' That's all they know," he says about why the famous band of college players defeating the mighty Soviets at Lake Placid in 1980 is mentioned twenty minutes into his movie, then hardly comes up again. It's a defining moment in American hockey and international play, just the start of the story.
While you might be able to catch a glimpse of what made the Russians spectacular for so long watching Ovechkin or Malkin, today the NHL is the big goal for most European players, not playing to assert your country's dominance; proof that, ultimately, the west truly won. "It's all guys slapping the puck around; hitting, running into boards," Polsky cites the most glaring differences between the styles of play. Obviously since the big money and fame is in the NHL, Russian players have learned to adapt, but you can occasionally still see the sort of moves that made the Soviets so fun to watch. The thing that's missing — according to Polsky's film — is the five-as-one mentality of Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov's (who passed away this week at the age of 84) system that not only kept the three forwards together, but the two defensemen as well. It's something you just don't see now, with coaches shuffling lines to shake things up when a team isn't playing well or to add grit to a line where a smaller or more offensive-minded center might need tougher players to help him out.
None better defined this philosophy than the Green Unit of Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov on defense, and the dreaded KLM Line of Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov, and Igor Larionov: "They could basically interchange," Polsky says of the line. "Anyone could be at any place at one time." That squad, with the goaltender that Wayne Gretzky himself called the greatest he ever played against helped Russia dominate international hockey on a level on par with the Yankees’ Murderers Row, the Boston Celtics’ countless championship banners, Michael Jordan's Bulls, Vince Lombardi's Packers, and any team the Montreal Canadians ever put on the ice. When you consider the fact that the Russians were playing against teams comprised of the world's best, and not rosters made up of a few superstars, some role players, and the other guys who maybe got some ice time, it's hard to deny that in the 1980s, Russia put together the greatest hockey team ever. They could beat anybody, and it transcended the sport: "It was magic," Polsky says." "It was like a whole new other creative expression that involved sport on a completely different level."
Time changes everything. Eventually the Soviet Union would collapse, and more Russian players would make their way to North America, escaping their homeland after things fell apart. Some of them, like Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny, made immediate impacts; but the legends from the 80s had a more difficult time adjusting. "It's like telling a guy who knows complex engineering to play with Legos. The guys have so much skill, but they're told to skate in a straight line." The players trying to make the transition to North American play is what provides Red Army with its dramatic arc. The feared Russians come to America, but suddenly they aren't able to play alongside the guys they defeated time and time again because they were out of their element; they aren't as physical, and they don't have players alongside them whose every move they've timed after years of playing together. It's sort of a "Wait a minute" moment for hockey fans that hated the Soviets for so long, and provides the setup for the triumphant comebacks of Larionov and Fetisov as part of the famed Russian Five unit for the Detroit Red Wings of the 1990s.
Polsky built his film through interviews and extensive research that took him to old Russian archive houses where it was just cans of 35 mm film and a Steenbeck machine. He explains how the Russians got to be as great as they were, but he's aided by an incredible story of friendship and greatness even against the backdrop of an oppressive political system, the players telling Polsky, "The only time they felt free was on the ice." That, more than any quote or moment of footage that has never been available beyond the doors of those Russian research rooms, is what will keep people who don't know a thing about the sport not wanting to miss a minute of Red Army. Polsky shines a light on the players as humans, not as part of the Soviet machine or a team.
Maybe that's something you can chalk it up to film icon Werner Herzog serving as an executive producer on the film, also an influence on the young director. Polsky points to Herzog's unique ability to "Capture the heart and soul" of his characters," as one of his biggest influences as a filmmaker. He says that even though Herzog doesn't know much about hockey, when he was shown the film, "his eyes were kind of like glistening and he was red." Polsky points to the film's underlying theme of "friendship among men" as the thing that attracted Herzog. But ultimately and most importantly, it's a great story, and that's all Polsky cares about as a director: "If I couldn't tell a story then forget it. I'm not interested in telling historical documentaries about the Red Army hockey team or the Soviet Union. That doesn't interest me."