There’s a scene in Gabe Polsky’s Red Army in which Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov flashes his middle finger toward the camera. Polsky is trying to interview the Russian hockey legend, but instead of answering Polsky’s questions, Fetisov is checking his phone. He’s distracted, but also a little bit defiant. It’s a funny scene, in part because in the great era of Soviet hockey, obedience was paramount to success. Red Army is at once serious—a look at the strict Soviet regime that treated hockey like chess, a game to be studied and dominated—and highly entertaining.
The film, which had its Toronto International Film Festival premiere this week in front of an audience that included Wayne Gretzky and Scotty Bowman (who appears in the film), traces the rise of Soviet hockey through Fetisov’s eyes. Now 56, the former defenceman was recruited into the Red Army hockey program as an eight-year-old, and the film uses archival footage to great effect: We see, for example, a mass of children dressed in hockey gear, scuttling across the ice on their hands and knees. Training was strict and, of course, militaristic, and the conditions weren’t always easy. “We got shitty gear,” Fetisov says bluntly about the hockey program’s access to materials and technology.
It was Fetisov’s coach, Anatoli Tarasov—founder of the Red Army’s hockey program—who instilled in him a deep love of his country. That patriotism propelled Fetisov forward as an athlete, and that sense of pride can be seen in all the players from that era who are interviewed for the film, including Vladislav Tretiak, Vladimir Krutov and Alexei Kasatonov. A love of one’s country and a love of hockey were, for these men, more or less the same thing, and as the film shows, these players sacrificed a lot—training four times a day, even in the summer, and living away from their families for 11 months of the year—in order to make their nation proud.
And the Soviet Union needed their service badly. At a time of political turmoil between East and West, hockey became a kind of warfare. The film shows how the U.S.’s surprise victory at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980—the so-called “Miracle on Ice”—was seen as a political victory in the West. For Fetisov, it’s painful to recall–in part because of national pride, but also because losing was so unusual for the team. At the 1981 Canada Cup in Montreal, for example, the Soviet team destroyed a Canadian squad that included Gretzky, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies and Denis Potvin.
The Cold War era was a time of remarkable creativity in Soviet hockey, but off the ice, the players were monitored by KGB agents while travelling and denied the ability to spend time with their families on a regular basis. When Polsky asks his film’s subjects to describe their teammates’ personalities, the result is mostly bafflement. “We were all the same,” says left-winger Krutov. Fetisov echoes that sentiment, and it’s a strange idea for a modern audience to absorb–that these men played together so closely they seemed virtually indistinguishable to each other off the ice.
But then came Glasnost and Perestroika, and a chance to play in the NHL. Fetisov was one of the first Soviet players to make the switch—joining the New Jersey Devils in 1989—and some of the film’s most gripping scenes depict the struggles he and other players faced as they tried to adapt to the North American style of play. While the Red Army team had valued teamwork, speed and deft control of the puck, the NHL game was more brutal and individualistic. Players like Fetisov were criticized for passing the puck too much and not shooting enough, and they were subject to a vigorous dose of xenophobia.
Most of those players persevered, though. Thanks to Scotty Bowman, the Russian Five was formed in Detroit, and they would win two Stanley Cups with the Red Wings. Their achievements paved the way for a slew of players joining the NHL from overseas–though in the eyes of Fetisov, who eventually returned to Russia and is now a member of the country’s Federal Assembly, something has been lost. “We lost our pride,” he says. “We lost our soul.” His ambivalence about Russian hockey today is shared by many of his former teammates: Players now have access to untold riches in exchange for their service on a team, but the old notion of loyalty, the idea of the collective over the individual, seems to have died away.