Q&A: Why the Miracle On Ice is really a tragedy

'Red Army' director Gabe Polsky talks about the problem with the Miracle On Ice, the magic of Patrick Kane and why he can't wait for Alex Ovechkin to see his film. (Red Army)

“It’s just a must-see for Canadians,” says director Gabe Polsky of his new film, Red Army, which opens in theatres Friday.

Sounds like boilerplate promo-speak, sure. But the trick with Red Army—which captures the rise and fall of hockey’s most beautiful and at the same time ugliest dynasty—is deciding whether it’s the best sports film or the best documentary film you’ve seen since you can remember.

Revolving around the charismatic, accomplished and courageous Viacheslav Fetisov, Red Army weaves the tale of the Russian Five (Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov), the defection of Russian players to the NHL, and the grip and dissolution of the Cold War.

Point blank, it is an incredible story, wonderfully told.

We chatted with Polsky, a hockey player born and raised in the U.S. by Russian immigrants, about his work.

SPORTSNET.CA: A scene that resonated for me was watching Slava Fetisov’s silence as you run footage of the Miracle On Ice. It was fascinating to see that great moment in U.S. sports history from the flip side, the viewpoint of the defeated. Was Fetisov really that quiet when you brought up the 1980 Olympics?
GABE POLSKY: He’s so exhausted talking about that. He always says he’s won every medal there is to win – politically and in hockey—but the only medal people remember is the Miracle. That’s a testament to the American propaganda machine. It is one of history’s greatest sports stories, but at the same time it’s one of sport’s greatest tragedies. No one remembers the creative achievements of Soviet hockey. What they did for sport and hockey is equally miraculous—but no one remembers that.

I ask people, “What do you know about Soviet hockey?” They say, “Oh, yeah. That team from the Miracle on Ice.” I’m like, “Oh, God.” We’ve seen the movie, the documentaries. I wanted it portrayed in a different way that people haven’t seen before. It’s only one part of a much larger story. That’s why that scene [with Fetisov] is so visceral. I want you to know what it felt like to be these guys sitting on the bench. It was a nightmare. In hockey, you lose sometimes. But these guys were so great, no one expected them to lose.

Watch: Red Army trailer

The style of play of the Russian Five is so unique, we forget just how beautiful they were to watch. What’s the closest to that style of play you’ve seen since?
I don’t think it’s ever been equalled. It’s not even close. The closest you’d see now is a guy like Patrick Kane. If there were five Patrick Kanes on the ice at the same time or three Kanes and two Duncan Keiths. The Russian Five were individually skilled, but as a collective they could play with each other blindfolded. It was like watching art. It was a cultural achievement.

Is it a failing of the game that the Russian style did catch on more in the West?
A major failing. Major. It’s one of the reasons I made the movie. I didn’t make this movie for hockey fans necessarily, but it’s a constant frustration of mine with the North American hockey system: Why didn’t we evolve our game more creatively?

Listen, we don’t have to copy the Russians exactly. It’s more about taking what they did well and applying that, the same way [coach Anatoli] Tarasov did with his system. He created that in a void. Whenever the Russians came to town they sold out every stadium. Everyone’s scratching their heads, right? Thinking, God! What the hell? It’s magic. Everyone wants to see hockey like that, obviously, so why don’t we do something about it? Apply what they did.

What’s the roadblock, then?
It takes a visionary for a coach. It takes someone creative who can apply these principles and take the game to another level, like Tarasov. You can’t evolve the game with coaches that are doing what the status quo is doing.

And the NHL trend is to follow what’s working for the winning teams or the previous champion.
Yeah, because people are afraid. They have no vision.

"It is one of sport's greatest tragedies.... I want you to know what it felt like to be these guys sitting on the bench. It was a nightmare."

Training by doing somersaults on the ice looks ridiculous, though. What was that was all about?
I had to do that when I was 13; I had a Russian coach, one of the first ever in the U.S. So I had to do somersaults and jumping exercises. We had to carry each other and do exercises with tires. All those circus-like exercises are for agility and putting your body in situations where you learn to recover quickly and be dynamic and skillful and aware of your body—how to move it like a dancer and be explosive.

Was there a moment in your research where you learned something that propelled you to change the focus of the film?
I didn’t even know Fetisov was going to be in the movie at first, and I didn’t know he’d be the main character. As soon as I interviewed him, I realized not only is this guy a fascinating character to watch, but his life… you can’t even write that kind of drama. It’s incredible.

When I was editing, there were a lot of guys I interviewed that I would’ve liked to see in the film, but they didn’t fit the story. I had to keep cutting the fat off. Guys like Pavel Bure and Valeri Kamensky. I have great interviews I was never able to use because it didn’t fit the story I wanted to tell. Some great archival footage, too. When you’re editing, it’s like writing—you’re trying to find the puzzle of the story, how to make it powerful and beautiful with the pacing. Everything’s always changing, like in hockey.

Tell me one anecdote that was painful to leave on the cutting-room floor.
Because the Red Army team lived on the base and couldn’t leave, these guys would have to sneak out of the base and sneak girls onto the base all the time. I said, “How could you be on the base and not see girls?” And they started laughing and said, “We found ways to do that.”

I loved the character-breaking moments where you have Fetisov taking a phone call mid-interview and flipping you the bird, or the little girl with the ice cream interrupting a serious interview with a KGB agent. Why keep that footage in?
That’s what makes films unique—the unexpected. It brings out different characteristics of the subjects. I like to make things as interesting yet as truthful and powerful as possible. Part of that is experimentation.

That little girl was walking in the park with her family and literally interrupted the interview—walked right into the frame—and the KGB guy stopped speaking. He wanted me to tell her to leave. I said, “No. Keep going.” I thought it was so funny and ironic that a little girl and the dark KGB guy are in the same shot. It’s a fun counterpoint. History can be funny to look back on even though it’s serious.

You produced Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Who is more of a wild card to work with, Slava Fetisov or Nicolas Cage?
Nicolas Cage, for sure. They’re different. But with both, you never know what they’re gonna do. You can’t pin them down. Even to this day, I don’t fully understand Slava.

A powerful scene shows Alex Ovechkin firing pucks and breaking Russian nesting dolls filled with Russian dressing as the narration muses on how the Russian game has lost some its soul. Did you try to interview Ovechkin?
That’s a great question. I’m in Washington right now. I’ve been trying to reach him and show him the movie—it might be here or at the All-Star Game. I’d love to hear what he thinks. I’m not attacking him personally; I’m using that as a metaphor for the theme. And I know I’m being defensive now because it might look a different way, but I’m excited to hear what he’ll have to say.

Gotta See It: Ovechkin uses Russian nesting dolls filled with Russian dressing for target practice

What’s the best piece of feedback you’ve received?
Fetisov really appreciates the film. Larionov just saw it, and he thought it was very authentic. I haven’t heard what the other guys think. Krutov died. The film was very successful when it premiered at the Moscow Film Festival, and people really were emotional about it. Before that, it went to Cannes. The people who don’t care about sports really like this film. Mainly women will say, “Hey, I don’t like hockey, but this is just incredible.” And they start talking about sports in a different way. Beyond the politics and ideology and sports, it’s an emotional human story that’s stranger than fiction.

How frustrating was it to get turned down for an interview with dictator coach Viktor Tikhonov?
Maybe it was good I didn’t get him. Maybe I would’ve had a worse film. I was disappointed, but I think it’s meant to be. The guy is like that. He’s tough. He’s dead, though. He heard about the film being released. Maybe that killed him.

One tournament that means a lot to Canadians of a certain age is the 1987 Canada Cup. It doesn’t get much play in the film.
Eighty-seven Canada Cup was the best hockey ever played. I can’t watch any other hockey because that ruined it for me. Now when I turn on the TV, it’s like watching an offensive line in football or something—guys hitting and slapping. Hockey should be like that. Coaches should sit there and watch the ’87 Canada Cup final over and over and think of how to do it like that but better.

"They could play with each other blindfolded. It was like watching art. It was a cultural achievement."

What do you love most about today’s game? Is there anything?
No, to be honest. Am I going to disappoint all the people that love watching hockey? Listen, I played Division I hockey [at Yale University]. I know what the game is. I just wish it could be better, that there could be a revolution. But Kane is incredible, and [Jonathan] Toews. There are flashes of brilliance.

Patrick Kane, individually, might be as good as Sergei Makorov in his prime. I think he’s better than Larionov was, or Krutov. Every time he touches the puck, you don’t know what’s going to happen, but he always makes a play. Every time the Russians touched the puck, something interesting happened. They never dumped the puck in. That’s what Kane represents. I think his coach limits his creativity because that’s the culture of hockey, but he’s the guy that people go to watch. He sells tickets, so shouldn’t we develop more guys like that? A fight every now and then is fine. I like aggressive aspects of the game, but there’s no ingenuity. You need smart people with the balls to change things.

"Patrick Kane, individually, might be as good as Sergei Makorov in his prime... His coach limits his creativity because that’s the culture of hockey."

Were you disappointed you didn’t get an Oscar nomination?
When you see the other films that got nominated and you put Red Army up against them, people can make their own decisions and write about it if they feel like it. But definitely a lot of people were disappointed; they felt it should’ve been nominated.

We did a screening with a group a couple weeks ago, and a woman brought her 12-year-old. The kid likes hockey, but he’s not a big fan. The woman said the kid turned to her afterward and said it’s the best movie he’d ever seen. That kid doesn’t know anything about he Cold War or any of this, but it shows that the movie connects with people in their heart.