This story appears in the January 26, 2015, edition of Sports Illustrated magazine.
Wayne Gretzky’s orders to Charlie Henry were clear: Do not allow the KGB agents into the basement. “Charlie, you watch this staircase and don’t let anybody down,” Gretzky told Henry, a friend of his father’s. “If the KGB pulls a gun, then call me.”
It was August 1987, and the Soviet hockey team was in Ontario to play an exhibition game in advance of that year’s six-nation Canada Cup, an international tournament that matched the game’s best players—professional and amateur—against one another. Gretzky was already an NHL legend at the age of 26, the winner of a record eight consecutive Hart trophies, but he’d earned none of his accolades competing against what he felt was the world’s best five-man unit. Four times at the Canada Cup in the previous six years Gretzky and the Canadians had played against the Soviet national team, which was led by its Green Unit: center Igor Larionov, wings Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov, and defensemen Alexei Kasatonov and Slava Fetisov, the captain. The teams had split those four meetings, with the Soviets outscoring Canada 19–14 and winning the tournament in ’81. (Canada won the Cup three years later.) “They were a better team than we were, sincerely,” Gretzky says.
With the cold war still simmering, the Soviet team was an enigmatic force, but in his limited time on the ice with the Green Unit, Gretzky had nevertheless sensed something about the men beyond their profound skill: a humanity that the games’ geopolitical overtones largely obscured. The Great One had even conspired during the 1984 tournament to arrange a secret, late-night dinner with Larionov in Calgary.
Three summers later Gretzky issued a more formal proposal. He invited the Green Unit to his parents’ home in Brantford, half an hour away from the game site in Hamilton, for a barbecue. The offer was accepted, with one condition. The players were to be accompanied by their KGB minders—whose official titles ranged from deputy chief of the delegation to stick boy—as well as by their dour, autocratic coach, Viktor Tikhonov.
So it was that Larionov, who was then 26, Krutov, 27, Makarov, 29, Kasatonov, 27, and Fetisov, 29, ended up in the backyard of the modest three-bedroom house owned by Walter Gretzky, a repairman for Bell Canada, and his wife, Phyllis. The Soviets brought caviar; the Gretzkys served steaks, corn on the cob and baked potatoes. Walter showed the Russians the unofficial museum, dedicated to Wayne’s accomplishments, that he maintained. “What can I say, I never seen so much trophies,” the now 56-year-old Fetisov says. “Doesn’t need any translation.”
Eventually Gretzky made his move. While his father distracted Tikhonov and the KGB agents by attempting to chat with them, largely unsuccessfully, in his fluent Ukrainian, and with Charlie Henry guarding the basement door, Gretzky led the Russian players downstairs and presented them with something their shark-eyed coach would never have allowed: an ice-cold six pack of Molson Canadian.
For half an hour or so, as they sipped their illicit beers, the men swapped stories—the English-speaking Larionov and Fetisov translated—and compared their hopes and dreams. They easily found common ground. Gretzky’s grandfather had emigrated from Belarus; if not for that, Gretzky might have been playing alongside them. They asked about playing in the NHL, which was something to which they all aspired. “It was an eye-opener for all of us—for them, for me,” Gretzky says. “[I learned] about their lives and what they’d gone through.”
“It’s the beauty of sport, you know?” says Fetisov. “One of the greatest players ever decides to invite his enemies to his house. You respect that for the rest of your life. It’s one of the things you memorize for a long, long time. We knew it already, but it’s proof one more time: They look the same, they think the same way, they are the same as us.”
The barbecue doesn’t appear in Red Army, the kinetic and enthralling new documentary about the great Soviet teams of the late 1970s and early ’80s, but the film is a portal into the Gretzkys’ basement on that afternoon in ’87 all the same. Those teams are remembered in the West largely as collections of indistinguishable automatons, quasiprofessional puppets of a villainous state whose unthinkable loss to a team of American collegians at the 1980 Winter Olympics touched off a surge of patriotism in the U.S. “Yes, I’ve seen Rocky IV,” Fetisov says. “Hollywood made big money out of Russians, making them bad.”
Red Army shows, as Gretzky long ago discovered, that there was more to these men than most Westerners imagined. First, there was their style of play, which, far from being mechanical, was artistic and elegant. Gabe Polsky, the film’s director, wisely sets clips of their weaving attacks to the classical music that partly inspired them. Anatoli Tarasov, the grandfatherly pioneer of Russian hockey, was influenced by the Bolshoi Ballet, as well as by the chess of grandmaster Anatoly Karpov, when he was developing what would become his nation’s approach to the game.
The movie showcases the men who fulfilled Tarasov’s vision, bringing them into focus not as robots (“Robots don’t hurt when they lose,” says Gretzky) but as individuals. There is the haunted Krutov, who died of liver failure a month after filming his interview; the morally troubled Kasatonov; and, most memorably, the prickly and amusingly droll Fetisov, who early on waves a middle finger at Polsky and emerges as the film’s heart.
The players were inseparable, bonded by the privations of Soviet life, which Red Army exposes with archival footage: the cramped living quarters (Fetisov grew up in a 400-square-foot apartment); the scarcity of food, which made “Fish Thursdays” a celebrated occasion; and the interminable lines for everything imaginable, including seven- or eight-hour waits for children who wanted to try out for Tarasov’s teams. As the members of the Green Unit grew into stars, their ties became unbreakable due to a common enemy—the oppressive Soviet system that made them its pawns, as represented, most immediately, by the dictatorial KGB apparatchik Tikhonov. The players liked to say that if they ever required a heart transplant, they wanted the coach’s organ, as it had never been used. In Red Army, their relentless brilliance becomes not a display of Communist might but a rebuke of it. The ice was the only place where they were truly free.
Westerners tend to boil down the Soviet teams’ decades of international dominance to one game, their loss to the U.S. in the Miracle on Ice. “For American people, selective memory, it’s a national thing,” says Fetisov. “I admit, I own one of the most famous silver medals in sports history. Correct? Done?”
Fetisov says that responsibility for the Olympic defeat can be attributed to his coach, who had seen the game as the ultimate opportunity to assert the power of his nation’s Communist system—and of his own genius—over that of the ascendant Green Unit. Tikhonov (who died in November at the age of 84) pulled Vladislav Tretiak, considered the world’s best goaltender, after the first 20 minutes—Tretiak had given up a soft goal in the final seconds of the first period that tied the score 2–2—in favor of the inferior Vladimir Myshkin. Fetisov also says that the coach gave too much ice time to a defensive pair from the Dynamo Moscow club team. In the U.S.S.R. club teams were affiliated with different sections of Soviet society. CSKA Moscow, the club team of Tretiak and Fetisov, represented the Red Army. Dynamo was KGB.
“Three out of four goals was scored on a Dynamo player defensively,” Fetisov says. “It’s a KGB organization. Three goals out of four. I didn’t allow one goal in this game. Myshkin was also Dynamo. Tikhonov tried to kill Red Army. If Tikhonov would have won Olympic gold in Lake Placid, I guarantee, no f-----’ Russian Five would exist. Dynamo would have dominated from then on. The loss of the Olympics in ’80 helped me to become who I am.
“Tikhonov was quiet like a f-----’ rabbit after this game,” Fetisov says. “But he had no choice but to stick with us, and we took over the world just like that.” While the U.S. began a celebration of their victory that still has not ended, Polsky’s documentary shows how Tikhonov made his players pay for their loss. He forced them to stay in a remote training camp, where he commanded them to work out up to four times a day. He allowed them just 36 nights a year at home with their families.
In spite of the hardships, the Soviets skated through and around their competition, winning eight of the 10 world championships played between 1978 and ’90, and in ’88 won their sixth Olympic gold medal in their last seven tries. But the players, led by the Green Unit, increasingly agitated for their freedom, and at great cost. In 1989, Fetisov was briefly exiled from the national team (the documentary includes footage—remarkable, especially in that it exists—of the banished captain training in the countryside under the watchful eye of an aged Tarasov) and spent a brutal night in a Kiev police station.
By the time they were allowed to play in the NHL, in 1989, the five Russian players were past their primes and exhausted, and achieved only varying success. While Larionov and Fetisov won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Red Wings in ’97 and ’98, Krutov lasted just one season with the Canucks. “The year and a half I spent really fighting to leave the Soviet Union took out of me probably 10 years of my life,” says Fetisov. “I was empty, physically, mentally.” Still: They had made it.
Gretzky makes only a brief appearance in Red Army. Captured in the moments after the Soviet Union defeated Canada 8–1 at the Montreal Forum in the 1981 Canada Cup final, he is 20 years old and shell-shocked. “Just can’t compete,” he says. “Just too . . . difficult.”
“To see them dismantle us 8–1 was mind-boggling, because we were such a good team,” Gretzky says now. “If they beat this team 8–1, how good are they?”
“In the mecca of hockey,” says a chuckling Fetisov of the game. “In front of their own people.”
Red Army is about a lot of things, but the respectful rivalry between Gretzky and Fetisov nicely encapsulates them. Gretzky considers Fetisov the best defenseman he ever played against, along with Islanders great Denis Potvin. “Slava could skate sideways and backwards as fast as I could skate forward,” says Gretzky.
For Fetisov? “Gretzky’s the greatest one, yes,” he says. “He’s not the biggest one, but he’s the smartest one, by far. The way he controlled the game. His playmaking skill was unrepeatable, I would put it this way. We never was breaking apart the game of the opponents, never. We knew if we were going to play our game, nobody can beat us. Only time we paid attention to the personality was Gretzky. Special video, scouting reports. He did lots of damage, especially when he go behind the net.
“Tikhonov, he said, ‘You’re going to play all the time against him. Every time he’s on ice, you have to go.’ I never give him space, I never give him time. I knew he was going to kill us. If I would say I knew all the time what he would do, I would be a fool. That’s why he’s the Great One. He’s got lots of—what you call them?—in his sleeve, to pull out.”
For Gretzky, his on-ice battles against Fetisov and the Green Unit played a role in bringing together a fractured globe. “It showed North Americans that the Soviets are humans too,” he says. “It’s not all about fighting and wars. They’re good people, they just wanted to play a sport.” The rivalry between Gretzky and Fetisov was driven not by ideology but by human passion and skill. All that the two men desired was to compete against each other, at a level unmatched before or since—and then to eat steak and drink Molson together. At its heart, Red Army recasts history to show that people, not politics, prevailed.±