Friday, February 13, 2015

Red Army

The Russian Five, Alexei Kasatonov and captain Slava Fetisov in the rear on defense, and forwards Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, and Vladimir Krutov

From left to right, defenseman Alexei Kasatonov, Coach Viktor Tikhonov, goalie Vladislav Tretiak, center Igor Larionov, and defenseman Slava Fetisov

Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak (left) and legendary hockey coach Anatoli Tarasov

Valeri Kharlamov

Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, captain of the USSR national hockey team

Slava Fedisov’s parents

 Slava Fetisov

legendary Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak

Soviet Hockey Coach Viktor Tikhonov

Slava Fetisov, (left) Soviet captain from 1980 – 1989, and Boris Mikhailov, Soviet captain from 1972 – 1980

 Slava Fetisov

Fetisov and director Gabe Polsky at Cannes, 2014

RED ARMY                A-                   
USA  Russia  (85 mi)  2014  d:  Gabe Polsky               Official site

Hockey players are not cowards!

This is about as much fun as you can have in the documentary format, where it has the feel of the madly inspired Guy Maddin on a mission, whose obsession with hockey, having been born and raised in Winnipeg, is nothing less than an ecstatic lifelong passion.  What’s perhaps most surprising is the degree of poignancy registered by a sports story.  The brilliance of the young director is not only the accumulation of such amazing archival material, but framing the subject matter as the examination of a historical event as seen through the eyes of a sports figure, where the transformation of an entire nation was happening simultaneous to events happening in his own life, creating an extraordinary look at how history can effect us all.  Perhaps what’s most unique is the degree of access into a period of Soviet history that is otherwise secretive and not easily revealed, where the filmmaker’s background, born and raised in the United States by Soviet immigrants might help explain the filmmaker’s inquisitive drive to uncover the mysteries of his own past, where his curiosity was bent on discovering how and why this Soviet hockey team of the 70’s and 80’s was so good.  Most are familiar with the Miracle on Ice, when a group of amateur and collegiate kids from America, barely together for a few months, played the hockey game of their lives and won the gold medal at Lake Placid in the 1980 Olympic Games, beating one of the greatest Soviet hockey teams of all time 4-3, gold medal winners in six of the previous seven Olympics, an event so improbable that Sports Illustrated called it the Top Sports Moment of the 20th Century.  Few, however, have taken an insightful look at just how good that Soviet team was that dominated the sport of hockey during the Cold War, where successful sports teams and players, much like the Space Race, were used as propaganda tools to demonstrate supposed ideological superiority.  Traditionally the Soviets didn’t even have a hockey team, as historically they played Bandy, an outdoor winter game that resembles field hockey on ice.  Since that game was never recognized at the Olympics (hockey was introduced in 1920), after World War II, the Red Army assigned Anatoli Tarasov to found a Moscow hockey club at the army sport’s club, CSKA Moscow, which represented the Red Army, while he served as the original coach of the Soviet national team for thirty years beginning in 1946, becoming the “father of Russian hockey,” developing a passion for the game, equally influenced by the mental dominance of chess masters and the athletic grace of ballet, where the Soviet style of hockey has an emphasis on skating skills, offense and passing, an amazingly creative and improvisational style where they move fluidly on the ice, working collectively as a team, turning the game into an art form.  

While Tarasov was the dynamic builder of the team which started to have some success in the 50’s, winning their first World Championship in 1954 and first Olympic gold in 1956, he was beloved by his players, seen as a paternal father figure, as he embraced each of them as young men full of potential, “You’ll become great hockey players…and great men,” where his job was to unleash that potential with inspired play on the ice. One of his young protégé’s, Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, was only 12-years old when he was chosen for the Dynamo youth hockey team, the oldest sports and physical training society of the Soviet Union.  Born in Moscow, he is one of the most decorated* hockey players that ever lived, the greatest defenseman the Soviets ever produced, where the list of his accolades amusingly overflow off the screen, like medals on the chest of a heavily decorated army officer.  To our amazement, Fetisov opens up like he’s never done before, literally befriending this young American director with a heavy mix of deadpan humor and Russian sarcasm, but also providing enlightening and sometimes eye-opening information about his storied life, where today his name is literally synonymous with hockey.  When he is introduced in front of the camera today at age 55 in a face-to-face interview with the director, he waves the camera away, as he’s busy taking a call on his cellphone, claiming it’s business, joking that Americans don’t know the meaning of work.  While his good-natured wit is appreciated today, it was not always the case, even in his home country, where he was a kid that grew up only blocks away from the rink, always the first to arrive, the last to leave, where so long as he was playing hockey he was happy.  As we are introduced to several former players, journalists, sports commentators, and even a retired KGB officer sitting in front of an immense statue of Lenin, they are each initially identified in the Russian language of Cyrillic and then in English, where there’s a constant interplay between Soviet and American, as the two nations were so much at odds during the Cold War.  Feeling personally connected to both worlds, Polsky, with a great deal of visual style, creates an often funny and always enjoyable film that is quick, witty, and fast moving, almost always with lively Russian music playing in the background, where there’s a joyous and festive spirit as we take a spin through Fetisov’s childhood, filled with strange and unusual training techniques, all designed to build teamwork and bring players closer together, to have each other’s backs, to look after one other, where players on the same lines stayed together off-ice as well as on-ice, becoming best friends in life, where the intensity of the experience is also connected to winning and being proud to represent your country. 

Interweaving plenty of archival footage from the 70’s and 80’s along with amusing and insightful contemporary interviews, the Soviets were extremely successful in the sport, winning gold in 7 out of 9 Olympic Games (Olympic record 62–6–2), winning the World Championships 19 times, where the players were honored with flowers and medal ceremonies each time they returned home to Moscow and treated like national heroes.  Even though they eventually lost the series, the Soviets surprised the world in the 1972 Summit Series, finally going face-to-face with the best NHL Canadian players and initially making it look easy, as the Canadian goalies had never seen the kind of choreographed movement on the ice before, where the puck could come from all directions.  To slow them down, the Canadians began engaging in a more physical style of North American play, resulting in disputes over officiating, roughhouse tactics and finally dirty play, where Philadelphia Flyer center Bobby Clarke deliberately injured the star Soviet forward, Valeri Kharlamov, intentionally slashing his skates, fracturing a bone in his ankle, where the Soviets were winning the series 3–1–1 when the injury occurred, figuring prominently in the Canadians winning the last 3 games.  Kharlamov was the most popular Soviet player at the time and his injury in front of a Moscow crowd had a chilling effect, only adding to the already existing East-West drama.  The Soviets returned to form for the 1974 Summit Series and won 4 games to one, where the Canadians wouldn’t win another head to head competition until 1989.  The interest generated by the international stage led to the next generation of Soviets, headed by new team captain Slava Fetisov and the Russian Five who helped win three consecutive World Junior Championships from 1976—78 as well as the 1981 Canada Cup, despite being led by Canadian phenom Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest player in history.  Despite the improbable loss to the Americans in the 1980 Olympics, the 70’s and 80’s were the period of greatest Soviet domination, where the International Ice Hockey Federation conducted a poll in 2008 asking a group of 56 experts from 16 countries to vote on the greatest team of the century, IIHF Centennial All-Star Team, which included four Soviet players on a team of six, with Fetisov and Gretzky the two leading vote getters at one and two respectively, including two Soviet forwards, Valeri Kharlamov and Sergei Makarov, legendary Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak, and Swedish defensiveman Börje Salming. 

Despite the honors, there was trouble brewing behind the scenes, where in the late 70’s Tarasov was suddenly replaced by a more dictatorial style of coach beholden to the KGB, Viktor Tikhonov, as the Soviet leadership feared defections, so they needed him to keep a close eye on all the players.  Housed in a prisonlike barracks 11 months out of the year, Tikhonov trained them relentlessly, refusing to let one player leave even for the impending death of his father, where according to Fetisov, the players won despite their coach, as they unanimously hated his approach, calling him an accountant due to the fastidious notes he was always taking, believing he suffocated their creative style and instead instituted a strict regimen and the threat of discipline, instilling fear instead of any love for the game.  Fetisov holds Tikhonov responsible for the Soviet loss to the Americans in the Miracle on Ice, claiming he favored the Moscow Dynamo players, who represented the KGB over the more skilled Russian Five CSKA Moscow players who represented the Red Army, which explains why he pulled the Soviet’s greatest goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, after the first period, pulling him for Moscow Dynamo goalie Vladimir Myshkin, suggesting it was the KGB players that allowed three of the four American goals.  But rather than being sent to some Siberian gulag after the loss, as people in the West might think, Tikhonov was actually honored and rewarded.  One of the curious side effects of the international exposure of the Soviet skill players was the interest by the NHL, as they wanted these players in the North American league, tempting them with big money contracts, but the Russian government wouldn’t let them go, though they initially tempted Fetisov with a contract similar to basketball player Yao Ming from Communist China, where they earn a huge million dollar contract, but 50% or more, depending on the terms, belongs to the government.  Fetisov, on the other hand, combining business and political sense, insisted on receiving every penny he earned.  So he stayed put.     

Drafted by the New Jersey Devils, Fetisov was initially promised by Tikhonov that he would be released to play in the NHL if they won another gold medal at the 1988 Olympics, which they did, but he refused to let him leave the country, even after a visit to Moscow, contract in hand, from the Devil’s President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello, who was even prepared to help him defect, if necessary, but Fetisov was a proud Russian that refused to leave under those conditions, never able to return home.  Fetisov’s wife Lada recounts a story of what happened in Kiev after Fetisov publicly refused to play any more for Tikhonov, where he was arrested, handcuffed to a car battery and beaten until 4 am, with the police eventually calling Tikhonov who informed them they could lock him up or do whatever they wanted, but he was not allowed to leave the country.  Finally he was called into the office of the Minister of Defense Dmitry Yazov, second only to the Soviet President (ironically dismissed from his post after a failed 1991 coup d'état attempt), who screamed and cussed him out for wanting to play for “the enemy,” but Fetisov instead offered to resign his position in the Red Army, where in 1989 he became the first Soviet citizen granted a work visa that allowed him to play hockey in the west, paving the way for literally thousands that followed.  At age 31, he began his second career in the NHL, which was hardly an easy transition, as he was forced to endure red-baiting hostility when the American fans initially hated him for not becoming an instant star and winner for their team, where he had difficulty adjusting to a more individualistic playing style.  He played nine seasons in the NHL, the final three in Detroit where he reunited with yet another Russian Five to win two Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998, once again retiring a champion.  According to the director, “Soviets play hockey the way Brazilians play soccer.  It’s improvisational, it’s fluid, it’s beautiful.  It’s extremely difficult, but looks effortless.”  Legendary Hall of Fame Detroit Coach Scotty Bowman was so impressed by their play at the time that he acknowledged, “I don’t know who taught you to play this way, but whatever you do, don’t change a thing.”  Transforming his life where he went from a national hero to a political enemy, Slava Fetisov eventually returned home to Moscow a Stanley Cup champion, chosen by Putin to be the Minister of Sport for Russia from 2002 to 2008, where his story reads like something out of a Tom Clancy novel.    
*Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov Notable Achievements and Awards:
Member of the Organizing Committee for 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Hockey Hall of Fame Inductee
IIHF Hall of Fame
USSR Hall of Fame
14 Soviet Hockey Championships
9 Time Soviet League All-Star
9-time IIHF All-Star
5-time IIHF best defenseman
7 Hockey World Championship Gold Medals
1 World Championship Silver
2 Olympic Gold Medals
1 Olympic Silver Medal
1 Canada Cup Championship
3 World Junior Championships
2 World Championship Bronze Medals
2 Time CCCP Player of the Year
2-time Soviet MVP
9 Years Soviet National Team Captain
3 Golden Stick Awards
Order of the Red Banner of Labour
Soviet Order of Honor
Soviet Order of Friendship
Silver Olympic Order
Order of Service to the Fatherland 4th Class
Order of Service to the Fatherland 3rd Class
2 Orders of the Badge of Honor
IIHF International Centennial All-Star
Honored Master of Sports
UNESCO Champion for Sport
Russian Diamond Award
Order of Lenin Award
2-time Stanley Cup Champion as a player
3-time Stanley Cup Finalist as a player
Stanley Cup champion as an assistant coach
2-time NHL all-star
Asteroid 8806 was renamed “Fetisov”

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