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I am not a hockey fan. Nothing against hockey; I just don’t know very much about it and am not motivated to learn.

Nevertheless I found Red Army to be an exciting, tense documentary about the lives of the Soviet Red Army team. Maybe it’s because the opening credits treat hockey as a surrogate for the twilight struggle between U.S. and U.S.S.R.

The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union

Is this the best team ever to play hockey?
Is this the best team ever to play hockey?

The Red Army hockey team was founded under Stalin. Once the Soviets decided that hockey would be their thing, they went after it wholeheartedly. They recruited young players from all across the Soviet Union. We see footage of boys lining up for miles to try out.

Their coach was a man named Tarasov. He proudly integrated elements of Karpov’s chess and Bolshoi ballet into the soviet style of hockey. He pushed his young charges hard and they learned to play together as a well-coordinated team. Tarasov took his team to Canada in the 1970s for 5 games and left the Canadians stunned, playing a style of hockey they had never seen before.

Tarasov was an excellent coach, but after an outburst he was fired. A man named Tikhonov took his place. The players hated Tikhonov, and they feared him too. He exercised the team hard — not even with a guiding purpose, just cruelly and excessively. It was under Tikhonov that the Soviets lost to team USA in Lake Placid. After the 1980 Olympics, Tikhonov fired the veteran players.

The players credit their prowess not to the fitness training under the new coach but to the hockey training under the old coach. They say Tarasov created a team; Tikhonov inherited one.

Still, they were an excellent team. They came to North America again for another tour, and outscored their opponents 42 to 5.

Things started unraveling in the late 80s and early 90s. The brilliant team started aging. The goalie quit hockey at 32. The old team resented the new coach. And when a player named Mogilny defected to the U.S. for a million dollars, the Soviet Union realized that the lure of money could be the biggest threat of all to their hockey domination.

Propaganda

Red Army has great access. Writer/director Gabe Polsky has modern-day interviews with all the key players from the Soviet team, primarily Slava Fetisov. Occasionally Polsky will dolly in on a talking head during an intimate moment, rather than zooming — a subtle but powerful difference.

Polsky also finds footage and highlights from important games between the Soviets and the North Americans.

Between segments, the visual effects team uses a graphical style that combines trading-card graphics with Soviet propaganda posters.

Thinking about the film’s story afterwards, it doesn’t seem quite as exciting as it did while watching the movie. That speaks well to Polsky’s storytelling style.

Realpolitik

Pretending hockey is the cold war invites a chuckle over the opening credits. But there is a crumb of truth in it as well. Part of why the Soviet team was so much better than the North American teams is that they really did work as a team. The capitalist system valued individual skill and effort, and the Communist philosophy fielded a more collaborative team.

What’s interesting about that is that the Communist players were so much better — until they started coming to America as individuals. On NHL teams, Soviet stars were okay, but not outstanding.

Only the coach of the Redwings in the mid-1990s realized this. When he put together a team of five former Soviet players, they were unstoppable.

Red Army is a little larger than hockey. Players speak of leaving Soviet Union to come play in America, and going home to Russia — no longer part of the collapsed Soviet Union. They left one country and returned to another.

Those who came to America speak about the cultural differences — informed by ideology, sure — but more the different ways of thinking, of living lives, of interacting with colleagues, of dealing with success.

And yet, whether they came to America or stayed at home, they are all alive now and telling their stories. It can be surprising how different things were from how they are now. Maybe that’s part of the film’s appeal too. I am not too far from the subjects in age, and I’m amazed at how much history there is in a life lived only this long.