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'Red Army' director delves into Soviet hockey legends

by Dan Marrazza

In North America, the hockey teams that once represented the former Soviet Union have long had a reputation: Robotic. Emotionless. Dominant.

Westerners have long respected the former Soviet Union's national teams as some of the most prolific in hockey history. Yet despite the esteem in which Soviet hockey is widely held, many Westerners still are not sure how to feel about those teams. In the end, the prevalent feeling in the West was that the Soviet teams were hyper-efficient, machine-like units, but that at the end of the day they could never equal the heart and desire shown by the U.S. Miracle on Ice team at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics or the grit displayed by Canada in the 1972 Summit Series.

Director Gabe Polsky's documentary "Red Army" places a magnifying glass over Soviet hockey's most-storied figures, using archival footage and thorough exclusive interviews to delve inside the psyche of the men and teams that made the Soviets legends.

A 35-year-old former Yale hockey player whose Ukrainian-immigrant parents raised him in Chicago, Polsky recently discussed "Red Army" with NHL.com.

'Red Army' spotlights iconic Russian team

By Evan Sporer - NHL.com Staff Writer
The documentary 'Red Army' traces the roots of one of the most dominant teams in Russian hockey history. The documentary has hit theatres in New York and Los Angeles, and has been shown at several film festivals. Director Gabe Polsky said it was the first movie about hockey to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival. READ MORE ›

Q: What was your motivation for making this documentary?

A: My parents are from the former Soviet Union. So I kind of have that background, and was a serious hockey player [at Yale]. When I was 13, I had a coach from the former Soviet Union in the United States, which was also a coincidence.

Then when I was 15, I got a VHS tape of the 1987 Canada Cup, where the Soviets were playing the best players in Canada. It was really eye-opening for me. I kind of describe it as a religious experience because the creativity that I saw on the ice was like a cultural experience.

It made a major impression on me and had me curious in my own heritage, my background and my roots. It brought me to the story that where hockey was a window into the story of the Soviet Union, the people and how they lived. In a way, it's a story about Russia and its relationship to the West in both the past and the present.

Q: You conducted some incredible interviews and show some amazing footage. What was the process of putting all of this together like?

A: I had a family contact with Vladislav Tretiak, one of the greatest goalies ever. He was having a birthday party in Russia, and I basically had to decide very quickly to go there. Ultimately, I went out there with a crew to see what I could get. Then one [former] player led to another.

Q: You conduct many interviews, but Slava Fetisov, without doubt, ended up emerging as the central figure. Was it difficult getting him to talk to you?

A: It was nearly impossible. He kept declining to get interviewed until the final day I was in Russia. I was about to go home and I got a call from him that said he would meet with me for 15 minutes. He met with me, never checked his watch and that interview lasted five hours. He said that he had opened up in a way that he had never opened up about this.

Q: In many ways, "Red Army" chronicles Fetisov's many successes and struggles, both professional and personal. What did you learn about Fetisov that you never knew before?

A: I felt that almost everything he said was eye-opening, both about how they lived and what they were and were not allowed to do. Maybe, initially, I thought that he, for sure, [had always] wanted to play in the NHL, like that was the end-all, be-all for him. But when talking to him, you realize that he didn't feel like he ever needed to play in the NHL.

Q: Fetisov's Russian patriotism shines through in your documentary. However, Fetisov and other members of the Russian Five, their children were mostly born and raised in the U.S. In fact, Fetisov's daughter interned in the U.S. Congress. How do these former stars negotiate their own Russian heritage with their families' current lives?

A: It's strange, right? These guys are like the heroes of Russia and the Soviet Union, and yet their children couldn't be more American. It just shows where you're born in the culture you're raised in, it really is ingrained inside of you.

I'm the same way. My parents are from the former Soviet Union, and they didn't like it there. You couldn't pay them a million dollars to live in Russia. Yet they have many Russian friends.

With Fetisov, he's very different than his daughter. I think his daughter would consider herself a true American. I hope I'm not speaking for her, but she relates to the culture, people and traditions and whole value system of America. But because Fetisov grew up there [in Russia], that's what he knows and relates to.

There's a common bond of what they had been through. You can never lose that. You always have that bond. It's not the system; it's the people that you care about. That will never leave you.

Q: If Fetisov is the hero of "Red Army," former coach Viktor Tikhonov is the antagonist. Before he passed away last fall, he declined to be interviewed for the movie. How did your dealings with Tikhonov go?

A: I got his phone number from somebody. I called him five or six times. He just said that he wasn't interested, didn't want to be a part of it and to stop calling him. He was pretty aggressive in how he said no. I read in the press that he didn't think an American could tell this story.

Q: Despite their many victories that you chronicle, in the U.S., Soviet hockey teams are often predominantly identified as "the team that lost" at the 1980 Olympics. Why do you think many Americans view the Soviets more for their one loss than their many victories?

A: Any country is going to focus on their victories. The Soviet Union did, too, but [their propaganda] was just way less subtle than [the subtle propaganda] in the U.S. I think that nobody is going to sit there and talk about how bad the U.S. did in '84 and '88 and all the rest of the Olympics, because nobody [in the U.S.] wants to hear that. In the U.S., we want to be optimistic, so we focus on this 1980 thing. It's selective memory sometimes.

Q: Lastly, the film has been released on a limited basis in Canada and the United States (watch trailer; view theaters), and has already been screened in Moscow. It will be fully released in Russia in April. How do you think the movie will be received there?

A: To keep a long story short, it got a standing ovation for like 15 minutes [during the screening in Moscow]. It was emotional. It was very bittersweet for people because although it shows the past, it creates a sense of nostalgia, and what the experience was like for them. I think they felt it was authentic. It's not pro-Russia or pro-Soviet; I think it's just an honest portrayal and the people saw that. I think it will be embraced there.

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