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Five Questions: Fetisov on 'Red Army,' state of game

by Dan Rosen / New Jersey Devils

Viacheslav "Slava" Fetisov's life and hockey career, complete with the hardships he endured as a star player trying to defect from the Soviet Union to play in the NHL, battling his tyrannical coach and government, its traditions and its ideals, is on display in the new documentary "Red Army," directed by Gabe Polsky, a Chicago-raised son of Ukrainian immigrants.

Fetisov, initially a reluctant participant in the movie, became the star of the show. He was supposed to talk to Polsky for 15 minutes but ended up sitting in front of the camera for 18 hours spread across three days and two countries.

He has since seen the movie three times and is happy with the outcome despite feeling odd seeing himself on camera talking about his life.

"It was funny the first time but mostly you see the reaction of the people," said Fetisov, who won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. "I think it's a good story and you can learn a lot. If you can give the good story to the kids, especially those who grew up in a lower part of society, they can be successful. If they get support of their family, if they got talent and put priorities in the right direction they can get out of the hole and be successful, be the champions."

Fetisov visited the NHL office in Manhattan last week for an interview with that focused on his participation in the movie but tangentially dove into what he gained by losing the gold medal to the United States at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and his thoughts on the old Soviet style vs. the NHL game today.

Here are Five Questions with Slava Fetisov:

We have to start with "Red Army." Why did you offer so much time? What did you hope to gain from it? What did you gain from it?

"If you think I would three years ago think that Gabe Polsky, a young kid from the United States, would make something that would be interesting for the rest of the world, I would be a fool. From the beginning he called me; he found my telephone and he called me every second day to try to get me in in this situation. But I said no because his format, he tried to talk to 10 different guys. I said, 'Gabe it's not easy in three minutes to tell my story and you've got enough guys and maybe they could give you what you want.' I keep saying no. Igor Larionov, as you know, didn't participate, and now maybe he feels differently. But in the final days of his [Polsky's] stay in Moscow he arranged some interviews with some other guys. I think probably [Vladislav] Tretiak was supposed to be the main guy in the show because he was friends was his father, Gabe's father. Tretiak's story is so simple; goalie, good communist, tried to become general, that's it. He quit at the age 32, wants to raise the kids, doesn't want to suffer anymore. That's probably the end of the story.

"So he called me and said, 'Slava, I brought a big crew, I spent my own money, can you give me 15 minutes?' I was in a good mood and I said, 'OK.' I came to the hotel room, I looked to him, and when you get so many interviews in your life you can feel when the guy is ready. He tried to tell the story and it's what inspired him to be a hockey player. He's a good psychologist and he probably knows what to ask. I give him credit. He started to talk about stuff and we ended up talking five or six hours straight in the camera. It was late night in Moscow. We met another two times. Nobody expected he would be so successful but he did what I like, he told my story of leaving the Soviet Union; when I left, how I left, the fight against system and I beat the system. I could run, defect, but I think it was for the people of my country, to do something for them, to use my name and what I gain from the hockey. Finally I beat the system. I opened the gate not only for the hockey players and by extension the NHL and the 30 clubs and to improve the quality of the game at the same time, but also you know it pulled down the Iron Curtain for the rest of the world. Any Soviet can go sign a contract with the acknowledgement of the government. This is no more evil country or system. But it took a lot out of me and he did a good job to show the world what I went through, the fight until the end, and even they tried to beat me up once in Kiev. But I'm here and I'm talking to you right now."

As you were speaking into the camera, as he was asking the questions, the right questions as you said, did it become cathartic in a way to lay it all out there and let the world know?

"For you, yes, but I wrote a book in '97 and I say even more than what was in 'Red Army.' It was reprinted three times in Russia. It's not new for the people. There were three documentary films already. There was another book, lots of interviews. So for the Russian people it is nothing new. But the West, it's eye-opening, especially nowadays when the political situation is so horrible. Maybe it's a story that can talk to the world in a positive way."

Did you want it to be eye-opening for the West?

"Yes. Not just for hockey players. It could be anybody. As a player, a coach, the minister and a senator, and what I did all my life just to be a peacemaker. It's a good show to show the Russians a little different way than the propaganda or the brainwash [that] portrays Russian people. I'm proud to be Russian. Nothing to hide."

Obviously it all comes out around the 35th anniversary of the 'Miracle on Ice.' I read a quote from you in which you said the loss in 1980 to the Americans helped shape the player and the person you became. How?

"Yes, yes, yes. I learned a lot. First of all, never underestimate the opponent. And secondly, if you believe in yourself and your team you can gain anything. That's a good lesson for everybody. I hold one of the most famous silver medals in sport history. It shows if you believe, if you're patriotic, if you stick with your imagination and put the big goal in front of you, if put priorities in the right order, you can beat anybody. That's a good example. I'd say I learned; I got a good lesson. And also rely on yourself, don't think somebody can do it for you what you expect. I was one of the youngest guys on the team but those superstar veterans didn't give me a gold medal. I had to earn the next two."

Igor Larionov wrote recently for a first-person article on the way the game is played now vs. the way the game was played when you were together. He said with the improvisation and the creativity you guys back then as a unit of five could have played the game blind and still found each other on the ice. He also said now it's a simpler game, a chip-and-chase game. What are your thoughts on that topic in general? Is it a simpler game now? And if so what do you think simple does for the game now?

"He's a specialist, Igor. He follows the game. I don't follow the game a lot right now. But I was proud; Igor was part of pushing the NHLPA to participate in the Olympic Games. I think the last three or four Olympic Games the quality of the games and the teams that showed in the Olympic Games is very high. Sometimes it shows in the Olympic tournament, when the price of mistakes is so high, we can simplify the game but the quality of the simplicity of the game in the Olympic Games is so high. Regarding the creativity, it's tough to repeat probably. The way we played, sometimes now I'm watching the games and I say, 'Oh my god.' You have to be from the same school. You have to be in the same set of mind to play this way. Sometimes the second wave, the third wave, it confuses the opposition. This was fun. We had so much fun. We could play aggressive and if we needed to we could hip check anybody, but we paid more attention to the game itself. That's what we learned. It used to be when I grew up you cannot fight in international games, in any games, and I was a little kid and I played defense since I was 10. I asked my coach, 'What can I do when I have to punish someone for their bad behavior?' He said, 'You have to skate well.' Skate well and you can hip check; you can get an open-ice hit, which is more painful than any fight. That's why I would skate after each practice, maybe 30 or 40 minutes backwards all the time to make sure if I needed to I could punish anybody.

"You can shoot when you skate well. You can pass from skating well. You can play the game if you skate well. You can confuse any team if you skate. But at the same time to move the puck is very dangerous."

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