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A conversation with Gabe Polsky, director of the new hockey documentary Red Army

Gabe Polsky’s new documentary Red Army tells the story of the rise of the Soviet Union’s KLM hockey team of the 1980s. While most Americans will know them as the team we beat in what is now fondly recalled by Americans as the "Miracle on Ice," they also happen to be the winningest hockey team of all time.

Extra Mustard caught the movie at last week’s Telluride Film Festival and sat down with Polsky afterwards to talk about Red Army, creative coaching and non-hockey fans.

The star of Red Army (both the film and the team) is Slava Fetisov, whose credits are so extensive that they practically spill out of frame when Polsky introduces him. In addition to receiving the Order of Lenin, the Order of the Red Banner of Labour, and two Orders of the Badge of Honor, he’s in the Hockey Hall Of Fame, he has 2 Olympic gold medals and 7 World Championship gold medals, and there’s an asteroid named after him. Not too shabby. In one of Red Army’s archival clips, Fetisov floats across the ice while a hockey announcer says, “It’s been said of him that he can skate backwards as fast as most defensemen can skate forwards.”

Fetisov in 1980

Fetisov in 1980

Fetisov on screen is as much a mystery as the Soviet Union itself – at once guarded and defensive as well as funny and playful. At a Q&A after the screening, Executive Producer Werner Herzog said, “He’s got a very harsh, hard shell, and inside he’s full of humor and insight.” Fetisov originally agreed to speak to Polsky for just15 minutes, but “he ultimately gave me an interview for five or six hours.”

The interviews with Fetisov are intecut with what Herzog called “archival footage of great strangeness and beauty.” This footage shows Soviet hockey mastermind Anatoli Tarasov’s unconventional coaching strategies, such as commanding his young athletes to somersault across the ice and carry each other on their backs. There is also footage of Tarasov visiting chess grand masters and Bolshoi dancers to learn their techniques.

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For Tarasov, creativity in the sport was paramount. “It was literally the most creative revolution in hockey,” Polsky said. “Maybe the most creative moment in sport. It was a Renaissance.” 

This showed through in their collective style of play. As journalist Lawrence Martin puts it, “Their passing game was an intricate, weaving tapestry.” That style led to dominance. In Sarajevo in 1984, they won with a goal differential of 42-5. After losing at the Lake Placid Olympics, they went on a two-year undefeated streak. There is no present-day equivalent to that kind of domination on the ice.

Red Army director Gabe Polsky with Viacheslav Fetisov

Red Army director Gabe Polsky with Viacheslav Fetisov

So what can today’s hockey players learn from the KLM team? A lot, according to Polsky:

“The issue starts with coaches of youth hockey. They don’t focus on or encourage creativity. In fact, they discourage it most of the time," said Polsky. "But you have to encourage creativity, and having fun... Part of the fun is in doing new things.”

Instilling this new mindset in American youth hockey coaches won’t be easy. As Polsky told us, Soviet coaches approached the sport completely differently:

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“The Soviets called it a school of hockey. They were physical academics. They studied physics and anatomy. North American coaches just don’t see it like that.”

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And this lesson doesn’t just apply to hockey; it’s true of any sport. “To evolve sport to another level,” Polsky said, “you need a guy like Tarasov.  You can’t just do the status quo. You need to evolve the sport, you can’t let it stand still.”

That isn’t to say, however, that it’s time for Americans to switch to the Soviets’ brutal totalitarianism. While they players all reminisced fondly about the highs, they were just as eager to condemn the lows. Fetisov remembers inhumane summer hockey camps that were so brutal “some players pissed blood.” Teammate Sergei Makarov added, “Your youth is wasted.”

When I spoke with Polsky after the film, I told him I didn’t really get a sense of whether or not these players were happy. It’s not clear if they all thought the struggle was worth it. Polsky replied, “Well that’s the question, isn’t it? I don’t know. I don’t think even they know.” 

But it would be a mischaracterization to say that this movie is just about a good hockey team pushing the limits of their endurance and physical well-being for success.

“When I set out to make this film,” said Polsky, “I never wanted it to be about hockey or politics. One thing I learned from watching Werner Herzog is to focus on the human experience, making something intangible.”

Gabe Polsky and Werner Herzog at the 41st Telluride Film Festival

Gabe Polsky and Werner Herzog at the 41st Telluride Film Festival

Red Army does that with aplomb, and speaks to passionate hockey fans as well as those who don’t know an Oiler from a Canuck. Our interview was interrupted by a woman who came up to Polsky to tell him how much she enjoyed the movie. Polsky thanked her, and to prove a point, he asked, “Do you know a lot about hockey?”

“Nothing,” she replied.

“See, a lot of people don’t know about hockey,” Polsky said, “but anyone can appreciate beauty.”

Red Army premieres January 22nd.

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