The question is asked and the telephone line goes quiet. Viacheslav ‘Slava’ Fetisov doesn’t believe in speaking ill of the dead. Even when that dead person once arranged to have him handcuffed to a car battery in Kiev. Even when that dead person made his rather charmed life miserable, when he drove Fetisov out of the game for a time and when he almost derailed his dream of playing in the NHL. But mores are mores, and Fetisov isn’t about to violate them.
He is asked how he felt when he found out Viktor Tikhonov, the notorious tyrannical coach of the Soviet national team and Fetisov’s personal nemesis, died recently at 84. “In the Russian doxology, in the religion, when a man dies, you can say good stuff or nothing,” Fetisov said. “And that’s why I’m not going to talk about it.”
Interviewing Fetisov, the greatest defenseman, if not the greatest all-around player Russia has produced, can be a battle of wills. He is at times charming and engaging, at times belligerent and condescending. One minute he admonishes his questioner for not doing his research, the next he’s inviting him to Moscow for a tour to see how things have changed for the better.
That Fetisov is on full display in the critically acclaimed documentary Red Army. Director Gabe Polsky was first told he could have 15 minutes with Fetisov for the film and ended up spending 18 hours over three days with him. That made Fetisov the de facto star of the movie, which uses his long and tiring battle with Tikhonov and the former Soviet Politburo over his release to the NHL as the backdrop for an examination of the Big Red Machine and how it was used to demonstrate the might of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The movie has incredible footage of early Russian hockey under Anatoli Tarasov, Tikhonov’s predecessor, but it’s Fetisov who steals the show with his candid and sometimes shocking portrayal of life under the constant watch of Tikhonov. On one hand, Fetisov wonders what all the fuss is about. He claims much of the material in the documentary was covered in a book he wrote in 1998. Much of it has been discussed in newspapers and magazines in Russia, and his feud with Tikhonov and the Soviet system is a well-mined subject. “You never asked me when I came in 1989 about what is happening,” Fetisov said. “It wasn’t interesting. I went through a tough time, but you didn’t give a s---, and now you want to talk about it 25 years later, but it’s OK.” Fetisov, 56, speaks on a night he has just come back from playing beer league hockey in Moscow with former stars such as
Valeri Kamensky, Alexei Kasatonov and
Alexei Zhamnov and some Russian politicians, but that’s hardly an isolated event. He still gets on the ice four times a week and claims to have taught Russian president Vladimir Putin to skate. The ironic thing about the man who helped change the landscape by leaving the Soviet Union for the NHL on his terms is that Fetisov is now part of the levers of power in Russia as a senator in the Federal Assembly. The same man who devoted much of his career to gaining freedom from the oppressive regime is now part of a government that restricts the rights of its LGBT population and ordered an invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Fetisov is part of the assembly that voted unanimously to use military force in Ukraine. At times, Fetisov talks about his work as the Putin-appointed Minister of Sport and how he managed to get Putin on board with reviving sports programs, and at others he does everything he can to distance himself from Putin, who, like Tikhonov, was a former KGB agent. That gets Fetisov’s back up. He points out that George H.W. Bush was once the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. When it’s brought up to him that his president seems to be quashing liberties for the LGBT community and Ukraine with strong-arm tactics, the same kinds of tactics to which he was subjected when trying to gain freedom, he bristles. “I don’t work for (Putin), I work for the f---ing government,” Fetisov said. “I’m not the f----ing main guy to decide what’s going on around here. I’m not his friend. I was appointed as a minister, and I met him a few times, and he talked about what we needed to do for sport, and he gave me a job. But I can’t call him and go to his dacha and talk to him. I’d like to, but I can’t. I’m not a puppet, I’m a politician, and the only reason I’m in politics is I try to change what’s going on.” Fetisov’s influence and imprint on Russian hockey is as indelible during his post-playing career as it was when he captained the Red Army and Russian national teams. After putting together the Russian team that won a bronze medal in Salt Lake in 2002, Fetisov accepted Putin’s invitation to become the Minister of Sport and was charged with the challenge of reviving the country’s sagging sports infrastructure. Fetisov boasts that because of his Putin-supported initiatives, 4,000 new sports facilities, including 300 new indoor arenas, were built during his tenure, which lasted until 2008. Athletes former and current have improved salaries and pensions. Fetisov was one of the founding members of the KHL and was a key part of the bid committee that landed the 2014 Olympics for Sochi. Even though the Russian team flamed out spectacularly on home ice, no country had more gold (13), silver (11) or overall medals (33) than the Russians won. So when Fetisov looks at his legacy as sports minister, he’s not above giving himself a lot of credit. And Fetisov is the only person in Russia who has both an asteroid (.8806 Fetisov) and an arena (Fetisov Arena in Vladivostok) named after him. Fetisov said he’s the only person in Russia with a building named after him while he’s still alive. “I’m proud of what I did,” Fetisov said. “We raised the budget for sport 20 times, and sport is now a priority for the country. We got the money, we got support from business and government. I did a good job.” At one point in the film, Polsky shows a scene from a local Washington television station that has
Alex Ovechkin taking shots at Russian dolls hanging filled with Russian salad dressing hanging from the crossbar of a hockey net. As Ovechkin hits the dolls and the dressing spews about, Fetisov says, “We lost our spirit. We lost our pride. We lost our soul.” Fetisov talks about how he tried to help regain that pride with his efforts in the Russian sports system, saying the 1990s and the dawn of the 21st century were a dark time for Russia. But he said Putin has done a lot to revive Russian pride that was lost and, with it, has helped to restore order. As for the documentary, it was a smash hit at Cannes before receiving raves at film festivals in Toronto and New York. But it wasn’t among the 15 films shortlisted for the best documentary prize at the 2015 Academy Awards, prompting the founder of Sony Pictures Classics, Tom Bernard, to slam the academy for being too old and stodgy. Had it received a nomination, the influence of the film would have been felt far outside the hockey world. Whether that happens or it just becomes regarded as a very good film with a hockey theme has yet to be seen. “Gabe Polsky did a good job and it’s a good story,” Fetisov said. “It’s too bad it got kicked out of the Stanley Cup final for movies. It’s too bad and I think it’s politics. Probably there are people who don’t want to see it.”
This feature appears in the Jan. 26 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.