‘Red Army’: A story of hockey and the Cold War

Tom Long
The Detroit News

‘Red Army’ is a tale of politics and ice, a survey of Cold War competition that involves inspiration, oppression, rebellion and reconciliation. On the surface it’s the story of one particular hockey player, but it reflects so much more.

That hockey player would be Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov. As a member of the Soviet Union's Red Army team, he became one of the game’s most lauded and successful players. But his history in sports says more about the political gamesmanship of his lifetime than goals scored.

Writer-director Gabe Polsky lets us know right off the bat what a cantankerous sort Fetisov can be; while sitting for an interview, the hockey legend flips Polsky off for daring to interrupt him as he checks texts on his cellphone. The man exudes power and condescension. He’s definitely from the same country as Vladimir Putin.

Polsky sets the stage with archival footage. After World War II, Stalin wanted to prove to the world that the Soviet system was superior to all others. Hockey became the means of doing this in the arena of sports. The dream of every young Soviet boy was to become a member of the national team, and elaborate tryouts were held for youngsters every year. On his second try, Fetisov made the cut.

Thus began a life built around training. In the early years, Fetisov and his peers were coached by the brilliant Anatoli Tarasov, a man who incorporated the study of chess and ballet into his hockey philosophy. Under his tutelage, the Red Army became the best hockey team on earth, flying over the ice in long, graceful waves, passing the puck with instinctive precision.

But Tarasov ran afoul of the authorities — all the hockey players were literally members of the Soviet Army — and was replaced by a stiff KGB puppet, Viktor Tikhonov, who was dictatorial. The players had to live — without wives or family — at their training center 11 months out of the year. They underwent a grueling training regimen. As a group they bonded, and as a group they seemed to loathe Tikhonov. But they kept winning thanks to the approach Tarasov had ingrained in them.

The team kept winning and Fetisov, its captain, became a national hero. It was true — the Soviet system was the best system. Except it wasn't — the economy was crumbling, rebellion was in the air. Fetisov and others wanted to leave to play in the NHL. The government wouldn’t let him and despite his fame he was blackballed, banned from training anywhere in his home country.

Obviously the story didn't end there. The Soviet Union fell and Russian players began streaming to the United States. Led to an extent by Fetisov, who some might remember won the Stanley Cup twice with a team called the Detroit Red Wings.

It’s an enlightening journey, and Polsky sprinkles enough humor into the film to distract from Fetisov’s essential crankiness. In the end Fetisov reconciles with the motherland — he's a politician now — basically becoming one of the people he’d been oppressed by and rebelled against. It’s a disquieting end to a sports story that's more than a sports story.



‘Red Army’


Rated PG for thematic material and language

Running time: 76 minutes

“Red Army” (PG) The story of the Cold War is reflected in the life of hockey player Slava Fetisov, who became part of the best hockey team on earth and forged the way for foreign players in the U.S. (76 minutes) GRADE: B