Cold war on the ice rink

Fetisov. Larionov. Krutov. Kasatonov. Makarov. Bykov, Tretiak and Tichonov. If these names take you back to your childhood, then you should go see Red Army. It’s a documentary about the Russian national hockey team in the 70s and 80s. Remember how they played like clockwork seemingly scoring one goal after another? Directed by Gabe Polsky, an American, it uses former team captain Slava Fetisov as entry point, probably simply because he is the only one ready to talk.

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This is a very, very knowledgeable documentary, made by a guy who knows how to talk about ice hockey, but not losing himself in strategic details. It is, to a great extent, also the deconstruction of a myth. The main complaint is that some of the famous players don’t feature at all – that is true, but you can’t include them all, and some of them are basically saying nothing at all while on camera, and some might have refused to appear. It’s a short feature, but a two-hour long movie including everyone would have stretched my patience.

Sport was made to be a kind of warfare under Stalin, and the Red Army made sure that everybody got the message that Russia ruled over the ice rink. The title is not just a metaphor: the players were high-ranking officers, fighting for their ingrained belief that Communism really was the better way of life. Their constant winning was the best propaganda the Politbüro could wish for.

The dream team’s beginnings were whacky. Their early coach Tarassow took them to camps where they had to play chess against Anatoly Karpov. Strategic sessions were held using pawns. For physical agility, Tarassow took his players to the Bolshoi ballet and made them copy the dancers’ moves. Tarassow was fired when he interrupted a game because a goal of his team went unacknowledged. Breshnev had to wait 40 minutes without any gameplay, got impatient and had him sacked.

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His successor was called Tichonov, and it is here that I started thinking of Whiplash more than once. Tichonov was a dictator in his own right. He made the players train and live together for eleven months of the year. Training sessions were held up to four times a day. Exceptions were unheard of: there is the obligatory scene where a player is refused to go see his dying father. On the other hand, just watch these guys play: skating backwards, leading the puck with the stick while looking elsewhere, passing the puck when every other player would have tried to score, scoring while flying through the air. Wayne Gretzky appears only briefly, but his confession of helplessness in the face of Russian strategy is all the more telling.

Trips for matches abroad were made with KGB agents aboard the planes. Eventually, players complained about the cruel treatment. Tichonov, who refused to be interviewed for this movie, yelled at them during matches and was rumored to beat them during training. The individual was nothing, the team everything. It’s no wonder some of them rebelled, although the lure of easy Western life might have played a part. Some of them wanted to go play hockey in the U.S., others rebelled because of the cruel treatment. Tretiak, the legendary keeper, refused to do any more oppressive training, but never left for the NHL. It was the end of his career. Others stayed out of patriotism or loyalty or fear. Some wanted an easier life, easier training, easier money. You can hardly blame them. In the case of Fetisov, the Politbüro refused to let him go, but sacked him. Tichonov publicly supported players who wanted to join the NHL, but did everything he could backstage to sabotage their transfers. To him, that must have felt like desertion.

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After threats of deportation, Fetisov went to play for the NHL, where he was universally disliked, no matter how well he played. It shows in his face. There is a segment where you can tell how stunned he is by the brutality of the NHL. Only eventually did Fetisov and other Russians get some kind of fan-base. One of the weirdest pictures shows Fetisov, Kozlov and Larionov in Detroit Red Wing shirts, holding up the Stanley Cup in front of the Kremlin. That was in 1997, and by then, Gorbatchev was in charge, and it was hard to tell if that image was a victory or a defeat for Russia.

The documentary reveals that it was Fetisov who organised the whole Sochi winter games last year under Putin. Other former teammates are in similar key positions. If Red Army makes one thing clear, it is that those players were never rebels. They complained about their treatment and sought a way out. Some found it. You could admire them for leading impossible lives while playing almost hypnotic ice hockey, but as soon as their active careers were over, they re-joined ranks. Politics, unlike hockey, isn’t much of a spectator sport.

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