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"Red Army" tells fascinating story of Soviet hockey history

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

“An outstanding athlete cannot belong solely to himself.”

Those were the words of Anatoli Tasarov, the legendary Soviet hockey coach who built not only a program, but developed a distinct and unique style of play that revolutionized the sport. Teamwork, camaraderie and trust in your teammates were the foundational principles of the Red Army Hockey Club, which produced some of the greatest players to ever play the game.

The grace and skill with which the Soviets played the game intrigued Gabe Polsky, a filmmaker who was born to Soviet parents and raised in Chicago. Polsky’s documentary “Red Army,” which is being shown at The Gateway Film Center in Columbus starting this weekend, tells a fascinating story through the twists, turns, triumphs and failures of Soviet hockey during one of the most sensitive and highly politicized periods in history.

And for Polsky, growing up in the United States meant hearing a lot about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, which pulled off one the more improbable upsets in sports history by defeating the Soviet team in Lake Placid, N.Y.

What made that victory so special was the upstart American team taking down the powerhouse Soviet team, which had been so good for so long and was not accustomed to losing – and that’s a focal point of the story Polsky tells in the film.

“I feel like there were a lot of things that hadn’t been told,” Polsky told BlueJackets.com. “The only thing people (in the U.S.) seem to remember about Soviet hockey is the Miracle on Ice. This Soviet team was one of the great dynasties in the history of sport, and what they achieved and did for the sport was, quite frankly, unbelievable. As I looked closer at it and studied the culture, the lifestyle, the story lines behind it…it was really eye-opening and I wanted to know even more.”

Polsky tells the story through Slava Fetisov, the longtime captain of the Soviet team and one of the greatest defensemen of all time. Fetisov, currently serving as Minister of Sport for the country of Russia, shares his story of growing up in the Red Army program, training 11 months out of the year (with only 36 days to spend at home) and literally living, eating and breathing hockey as part of a team that became the pride of Soviet culture.

He is a compelling figure in the story, taking us through his hockey-playing childhood that began with his parents collecting money and spare equipment for two years just so he could begin the Red Army hockey school. Fetisov endures betrayal from one of his best friends, Alexei Kasatonov, a rise to fame in the United States, and reveals a troubling story about the dictatorial regime of coach Viktor Tikhonov, who replaced Tarasov after an in-game protest moved the KGB Chief to make a change atop the program.

“Slava went through just an incredible story,” Polsky said. “He kind of represents everyone else in a way, too; he’s somewhat confrontational but he also has this integrity and this magnetism to him. He was captain of the team but fought the system, fought for future generations of Russian hockey players and fought the Communist system that created him. When I started interviewing him, it became clear that he was going to play an important role, and as the story grew, he became a bigger and bigger part of it.”

And perhaps needless to say (after viewing the film), Tikhonov was hardly revered or respected by his players despite him having universal support from the Soviet government. It was team first, no matter what, and at all costs. Tikhonov once prevented a player from briefly leaving the team to say goodbye to his ailing father, telling him that preparing for the next game was more important.

As one player was quoted in the film: “If I ever need a heart transplant, I want Viktor’s, because Viktor has never used his.”

“If you want to be the best in Soviet hockey and the best in the world – and let’s face it, all of these players did – you had to play for this guy,” Polsky said. “The government gave coaches all of this power and the tools to manipulate the players. The players had no power. You had to do what was said, and they all hated him. There was no recourse or no choice in the matter for these players.

“It’s a lesson, in certain ways, that you have to be careful with your power. When you abuse it, the end is not good. Tikhonov won a lot of trophies, but when he passed away, I’m sure he had a lot of regrets.”

The depth and detail in “Red Army” has impressed hockey fans and film critics, to the point where people who consider themselves quite in-tune with the sport’s history have been blown away by some of the stories told in the film.

Polsky wanted the film to humanize the players and their stories, many of them tales of perseverance and standing up for what they believed was right.

“People say to me – even those who are knowledgeable about the sport or Soviet hockey – that they never knew anything about this,” Polsky said. “A lot of the stuff in my movie is astonishing to them, just the way these guys lived and what they had to go through and the conflicts that arose during that era.

“What this movie does is put a real, human face to who these people are and were. The hockey was a reflection of society at that time, and what the movie does is give insight into the history and the people of Russia. They’re just like us, you know? They really are.”

NOTE: Gateway Film Center has a special offer for fans coming to watch "Red Army" this weekend. Blue Jackets fans wearing CBJ gear to any showing Friday-Sunday will receive a FREE popcorn. Click here for details and showtimes.

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