Q&A: ‘Red Penguins’ creators talk Mario Lemieux, Disney, mob ties

The Russian Penguins played in the 1993-94 IHL season. (Sergei Guneyev/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty)

Beer-serving bears, ruthless gangsters and hockey-rink strippers are just a few of the attractions in the latest film from director Gabe Polsky (Red Army and In Search of Greatness).

The stranger-than-fiction Red Penguins, which made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, recounts the shady, wild and dangerous exploits of the Russian Penguins hockey club.

Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s, as Americans rushed to import capitalism behind the Iron Curtain, then–Pittsburgh Penguins owner Howard Baldwin (with help from star investors like Mario Lemieux and Michael J. Fox) purchased a 50 per cent stake in the Russian Red Army team and hired an adventurous entrepreneur, Steve Warshaw, to market the club in the most Americanized ways imaginable.

Chaos ensues. In both hilarious and murderous ways.

Straight up, the thing must be seen to be believed.

We sat down with Polsky and Warshaw—sporting a Red Penguins throwback sweater he bought off eBay—at TIFF to get some more insight (and fun stories) from that turbulent time.

SPORTSNET.CA: This is an incredible documentary, but I was surprised I don’t remember seeing much coverage of the Red Penguins at the time they were playing. It totally flew under the radar.

STEVE WARSHAW: And you’re Canadian.

GABE POLSKY: You’re supposed to know. If you don’t know, nobody f—–’ knows.

SW: It was on The Today Show, ABC News, CBC News. We got great exposure in the States—when things were good. But as soon as the excrement hit the air conditioning, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, that’s when the media didn’t know and didn’t care. It was a better story when it was the capitalists going to Russia.

GP: No one reported what was actually happening on the ground. It was this success story: “Look! We can collaborate, America and Russia! We can do business!” That’s what people made it into. They didn’t know what it was like for Steve on the ground every day.

SW: We didn’t tell anybody [about the corruption] because we didn’t want to scare our sponsors. We didn’t want to scare our tours, our television [deals], nothing. We kept it under wraps as well. We were fighting the realities of the mafia with trying to keep our sponsors and our fans at rest.

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How hard did you try to get Disney to participate in the film? It’s curious that Michael Eisner, who was seemingly on board at the time, distances himself from the Penguins.

GP: I actually know him. I’ve met him a couple times. So when I called him, I thought, “Yeah, this is going to be great. I’m going to get an interview. He’s going to have so much fun with this.” First of all, he wouldn’t call me back. Second, his assistant called me back and basically said, “He doesn’t know anything about the Russian Penguins.” I said, “Are you sure?” She said, “Yeah, yeah, he’s not going to do the interview.”

How different is that tone from the one Disney had at the time?
SW: They sent their top [executive] to Moscow, Kevin Gilmore, who is in the film. He’s Canadian. They absolutely adored it. We were selling so much merch on the tour, they felt this was going to be a huge licensing opportunity for them. They were gung-ho. They loved it. We have contracts. I sent Michael a stuffed penguin when he was in the hospital, and I have a letter from him after his surgery: “Comrade Warshaw, thank you for your best wishes.” It’s very confusing why he’ll disavow any knowledge of what was once priority No. 1 for Disney Imagineering, which is their graphics division. That’s why you’ll see all these wild, bellicose images of tanks firing hockey pucks. He loved it. He flipped out. So did Disney. Disney came to a couple of the IHL tour sites, including the San Diego Gulls, and they were flipping out.

GP: I love the concept of this military-run team, the pride of Russia—it was everything for them—potentially going to be sold to Disney. It’s the most insane thing. It’s like if the Toronto Maple Leafs were owned by the Canadian military, went bankrupt and were going to sell to China. It’d be weird, right?

The Red Army was Russian hockey.

SW: Exactly. So there was a lot of reticence with the Russian media, especially. The media hated us when we got there. When we first met them and told our marketing strategy, they were complaining that the NHL was stealing all their best players. We were left with very few good players, but we had a few: Sergei Brylin won three championships with New Jersey, Nikolai Khabibulin was an all-star. So one of the things I said [to inspire hope] was, “All the oak trees have left for the NHL, but we have the acorns now.” And one of the media guys stood up and said, “F— your acorns. We want our oak trees back.” We knew it wasn’t going to be easy to win over the media, but on our first Legends Night, we retired the jerseys of all the deceased legends of Russia. We brought their widows and children.

GP: That was such a big deal because they’d never done that before.

SW: Even Tretiak. We retired Tretiak’s jersey.

They had never done any number retirements before?

SW: No. Culturally, communism is all about the state. No individuals. You’re part of the machinery there. You can be replaced. Tretiak came up to me after he hoisted his banner to the rooftop with his family and said, “How ironic: It took an American to honour my career in Russia.” He couldn’t get over that fact.

Team investors Mario Lemieux and Michael J. Fox don’t give interviews in the film. Why not?

GP: I reached out to them, but after I started getting into the film, I realized their involvement was minimal. They were playing hockey or acting. They were just excited investors trying to promote the team: “Look, I’ve got this crazy investment in Russia, but it’s also a cultural and political thing where we’re showing we can do business with the Red Army.”

SW: Every time I came back to Pittsburgh, Mario would always come running up to me: “How are things in Russia?!” He’d been there in junior, so he had a cultural fascination with Russia. Michael J. Fox, I would see at Universal Studios in his bungalow. He was more interested in the swag. I’d bring him Russian rubles, Russian coins. To him it was this incredible fantasy he was involved in. But they were not involved day to day.

GP: I did invite Lemieux to the premiere. He declined. I do hope he gets to see this movie. I think he’d get a big kick out of it. I guarantee Lemieux has no idea what really happened. Right?

SW: Right. He never made a trip over.

GP: I bet he’ll see this movie and be like, “What. The. F—.” He’s going to ask for his money back. [laughs]

Mario had no idea he was in business with the Russian mob.

SW: Exactly. And Mario Junior, Jaromir Jagr, he always used to wear our jerseys after games when he’d work out. Jagr always stayed an extra hour after the game, which is why he lasted so long. Just a physical specimen. I’d see him after games in his Russian Penguins jersey, a red one. He got a kick out of it, too.

Prime Time Sports
Director Gabe Polsky on his film "Red Penguins"
September 09 2019

I love the guy who played the mascot, who wants his real face to be seen. He’s not just satisfied with being a cuddly penguin.

SW: He was a character because he could barely skate. You see on opening night, he came out, tripped and fell. Horrible skater. I actually taught him what to do.

GP: That’s a funny story. Because they knew nothing about marketing, Steve had to teach this guy how to be a mascot.

SW: I put on the uniform and the skates and showed him a few tricks. I taught him how to entertain fans. So when he fell by accident the first night, the crowd got such a kick out it that he did it every night. It became his act. There are some sad stories that didn’t make the film about the mascot. He once came back to the locker room bloodied because the militia beat him up. We don’t know why. Our own militia inside the arena pummeled him. He was also abused by fans. Fans would throw beer at him. There was a creepy relationship between the fans and the mascot. But for the most part he did a wonderful job. [laughs]

GP: He said he would give away chocolates, and people would fight over the chocolates. I guess in Russia that was a delicacy. If he didn’t give certain people the chocolates, they’d find him and beat him up.

SW: We had a chocolate-eating contest.

GP: Even being a mascot is very dangerous, like in Sudden Death. (LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFprLPWDd-Y)

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Describe your relationship with head coach Viktor Tikhonov—this strict hockey legend suddenly surrounded by zaniness.

GP: He went from having a team with the greatest players in the world to just the [crappiest]. Imagine that, how embarrassing that is.

SW: On opening night, Dmitri Starostenko, who played for CSKA and was drafted by the Rangers, got called up for the season, but no one knew it yet. I had this idea of a female acrobat putting on Starostenko’s uniform and coming down from the top of the arena on a rope while the teams were lined up for the faceoff. Everyone would think it’s Starostenko until she took her helmet off, shook her long blonde hair and gave the puck to the referee. So, I asked Tikhonov if I could do this to start the season. He said, “No way. You’re not going to make a fool of this team!” Finally, he said, “Maybe. Under one condition.” I said, “What is it?” He said, “I want you to be the person in the uniform coming down the rope. Because I’ll be at the top, cutting that rope on your way down.” So, he had a sense of humour.

GP: Did you get a sense what it was like for him to have such a terrible hockey team?

SW: He was miserable. He didn’t want any part of this Western glitz.

GP: Was there an irony that the building was so lively and everyone was having so much fun and that for once the building was full, but the quality of hockey was so poor?

SW: First of all, you couldn’t even applaud in the old days. [Leonid] Brezhnev would sit in the president’s box, and only when he stood up could the fans applaud. There were strict rules about being a spectator is Russia. It was crazy. We also gave our players incentives to fight at home, which is completely illegal.

They’d get a financial bonus if they dropped the gloves?

SW: Yeah, because we wanted the fans to get even more crazy. No one fought in the Russian league. Tikhonov hated this also. He hated everything we did. The one thing he liked is that when we started to play better, the young fans started to chant, “Tik-hon-ov! Tik-hon-ov!” So I said to [commentator] Viktor Gusev: “How could these kids be cheering on a fascist, brutal guy that wouldn’t let his players out to visit their sick parents?” If they were sick, and you were playing for CSKA, you had to wait until they died. Then he’d let you out to go to the funeral. Here’s a guy that wouldn’t let you have sex with your wife. While you were in camp, they gave you five minutes a month to have sex with your wife, behind the barracks, in the snow. He was a brutal guy. No one liked him. Now, all of a sudden, he’s popular because the young kids saw that we were winning. So, I said to Gusev: “How can these kids cheer for him?” He said, “Because that’s what Russia’s about. It’s about power. Winning. We don’t care how you get there.”

Did you ever fear for your life?

SW: Oh, yeah. We all did. We were more concerned about being brutally beaten than killed, just so they could send a message to Pittsburgh or the NHL: Don’t think about bringing other teams over here.

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