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“Red Army” delves into the mystique of Soviet hockey

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago native Gabe Polsky (left) and Slava Fetisov, one of Polsky's subjects in his documentary about Soviet Hockey, "Red Army."

As a youngster growing up in suburban Chicago, Gabe Polsky often trundled onto the driveway to score for his beloved hockey team, then broadcast this great event as would his favorite announcer, Pat Foley.

“BLACKHAWKS GOAL BY GABE POLSKY! AND THE STADIUM CROWD IS GOING WILD!”

Alas, Polsky’s ice time dwindled at Yale University, all the better toward his next calling. He majored in political science, but his passion for hockey lived on, as did his gift for telling a story, as few ever have, with pictures and words.

Now Polsky’s gift to us is “Red Army,” a stunning documentary about the sport in the Soviet Union, where a dynasty arose while the rest of the world looked on with a sense of unfulfilled curiosity. To those of us who remember the epic 1972 Summit Series against Canada, when North America realized it did not own this game, and the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid, the Soviets seemed as unknowable as they were talented.


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Polsky demystifies these soldiers on skates through extraordinary film footage and brilliant interviews. He became fascinated by the Soviet style—a ballet of weaving, circling, passing—to such an extent that he felt he simply had to do more than spectate. His parents were Soviet immigrants; his father, Michael, knew Vladislav Tretiak, the iconic goalie.

“That’s how it started,” Polsky recalled. “I had a hard time. I made phone calls, knocked on doors, got rejected. Russia is a tough place to do business. And talking about emotions, that’s not something Russians do. But eventually, a few of them opened up. The project took two years. Closed it at about the time of the Winter Olympics in Sochi last February.”

When “Red Army” was unveiled in Toronto, Wayne Gretzky brought his whole family to the showing and raved about it. Scotty Bowman was there too, but Polsky couldn’t get a word with him afterward. Bowman was speed-dialing, telling friends about this remarkable hockey movie that was about more than hockey. Excellent reviews have followed, including throughout Canada, where hockey is a religion, and Russia, where “amateurs” belonging to the Red Army were hockey players, every day, year-round.

Alexander Mogilny, saying he “lived like a homeless dog” in the Soviet Union, was the first to defect to the National Hockey League. But the seminal figure in “Red Army” is Viacheslav Fetisov, who is initially shown in a universal position—hermetically sealed to his cellphone—and flashing Polsky a universal salute. However, it is the iconic defenseman who guides viewers through the serpentine politics and protocol of the system.

Fetisov was beaten, handcuffed and threatened before joining the New Jersey Devils. His welcome to North America was as chilly as his initial meeting with Polsky. But in Detroit, where Fetisov was united with several of his countrymen, they flourished—winning consecutive Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998 under Bowman, a genius who allowed others to thrive. He approached Igor Larionov, one of the “Russian Five” on the Red Wings, and delivered a hands-off message uncharacteristic of a Hall of Famer who belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of coaches, all sports, all eras.

“I told him, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing out there, but whatever it is, don’t change a thing,’’’ recalled Bowman, who currently serves as Senior Advisor to Hockey Operations for the Blackhawks. “I just put the five of them out there at the same time, two defensemen and three forwards, and it was like the Harlem Globetrotters, the way they controlled the game.”

Polsky is a Chicago guy working out of Los Angeles. He attended many games in Chicago Stadium, where he marveled at the creativity of Denis Savard. He was also a linemate of Adam Rogowin, the Blackhawks’ Senior Director of Public Relations. Polsky, who grew up listening to Foley, found several places in “Red Army” to insert the Blackhawks’ Hall of Fame broadcaster for voiceovers. If Patrick Kane has any free time during rehabilitation from a broken clavicle, he could watch this film and mistake it for a mirror.

“I could talk all day about him,” said Polsky. “Kane is one reason why the Blackhawks are the most fun to watch of any team now. He has that same vision, same hands, same imagination as the Russians. He is the embodiment of their style.”

At the movie’s end, Fetisov casually mentions that this Gabe is a good guy, a good guy from California. But Polksy, off camera, gets in the last word.

“Chicago.”

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