No Coward Plays Hockey, by David Bax
Gabe Polsky’s Red Army takes its title from the nickname of the Soviet national hockey team that dominated the sport on an international plane for decades leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But from a pure story point of view, the film is really about Slava Fetisov, the star defenseman and longtime captain of the legendary squad. Whether that focus was intended from the beginning or a happy accident, it’s to the film’s benefit. Fetisov is volatile, combative, magnetic, patriotic, enigmatic and contradictory. He is first introduced to us ignoring Polsky’s questions and staring at his cellphone. When Polsky persists, Fetisov gives the camera the finger.
The Soviet Union wanted their athletes to be ambassadors, living representations that their system and their way of life was the best as proved by their dominance in sport. Nowhere did that model work better than in hockey. In nine Olympic games from 1956 to 1988, the Soviet national team won seven gold medals. The other two times, they won one bronze and one silver, the latter coming in the famous 1980 “miracle on ice” game, in which Fetisov played. These were men whose entire lives were spent playing hockey. For eleven months of the year, they lived in a camp together and barely saw their families. The beloved coach under whom Fetisov started was dismissed, not for poor performance but because he happened to piss off Nikita Kruschev. His replacement was a draconian terror; at times, the team considered failing intentionally to get rid of him but found themselves too patriotic to follow through. Starting in the late 1980s, Soviet players began to come to North America to play for the NHL, first by defection and later with the permission of Politburo under the condition that a large portion of their contract would be paid to the government. Fetisov came too, eventually, but first he had to lose friends, live in near-exile, finally come to the NHL only to fail and, eventually, win two Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings and return to accolades and honors in Russia.
Fetisov is an easy choice to build a documentary around and one gets the impression Polsky could have made a much longer movie on him alone. He’s often grumpy, taciturn and opaque but he’s also an inspiring and sadly frustrated idealist, though he would be probably chafe at being described thus. When asked about the Cold War, he replies, “What’s the Cold War?” His stubbornness caused him problems, though, when it came to his move to the NHL. He was the first Soviet player offered a spot by the league but he wasn’t the first to join. They told him he could have $1,000 a month and the rest would go to the government. He said no. They offered him 10%, 20%, then 25%. He said no. He did not refuse out of greed but because they had promised him if he won gold in Calgary in 1988, he could take a job in North America with no strings attached. They reneged on their word and that is what offended him.
Despite his frustrations, he never considered defecting, though the opportunity was offered to him. No matter what, Fetisov was a patriot. For a hockey team that was meant to be a synecdoche of the entire Soviet way of life, he was the perfect captain. He even refused the appointment until his teammates insisted. They were his comrades. As one man, a KGB agent who provided both security for and surveillance on the Red Army team, says, “It’s difficult to talk about hockey as separate.” When you can’t separate team and country, disillusionment with one taints the other.
Red Army extolls the virtues of unity that communism represents at its best and shows us how those ideals lead the team to so many victories. And then it shows us how power, corruption and paranoia tore it apart. It’s meant to be a story of the fall of the Soviet Union in miniature and it mostly works. Yet, in the end, Polsky turns disenenguous. He shows us the parade of Russians who have come to play in the NHL in the years since Fetisov and his contemporaries broke new ground but he ignores the more recent developments in Russia’s KHL that have begun to bring those players back. His montage of draftees includes star left winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who went on to sign a major deal with the New Jersey Devils but Polsky leaves out the fact that Kovalchuk broke that contract and now plays in Saint Petersburg. Still, the fact that the allegory has holes is a quibble compared to just how good a yarn Fetisov’s story is.