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Red Army hockey documentary a fascinating look at team chemistry

Gabe Polsky's Red Army, a very good documentary about the Soviet hockey dynasty of the 1980s, reminds us of how difficult team chemistry is to achieve. It's a movie about politics, culture, loyalty and hockey strategy.
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For more about the Red Army documentary and the legendary players on that team, check out the January 26, 2015 edition of Sports Illustrated for Ben Reiter's feature story "Five Against The World."

When did the word "chemistry" get so soft? In the context of sports, the term evokes images of collegial teammates patting each other on the butt and sharing a laugh. To hear pro scouts and pundits talk about chemistry, you'd think they were auditioning for an eHarmony commercial: "These guys are just a really tight bunch. That's why they're enjoying so much success together."

Really, chemistry is hard—the hardest of the hard sciences, in fact. Gabe Polsky's Red Army, a very good documentary about the Soviet hockey dynasty of the 1980s, reminds us of this fact. It's a movie about politics, culture, loyalty and hockey strategy. But it's also about the genuine chemistry that existed in the Soviet hockey system, in a way that it simply never has (or ever will) in the NHL. The players of the great HC CSKA Moscow teams disliked their coach and their situation. But what made the team unhappy and tragic also made it great. 

If you don't know the story, I encourage you to see Red Army. In short: The Soviet hockey team dominated international competition with its unparalleled five-man "Green Unit," which consisted of defense partners Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov, and the KLM Line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov. Recruited when they were very young and brought up together, these players combined the advanced strategies of original USSR coach Anatoli Tarasov with the dictatorial training of his succesor, Viktor Tikhonov, to win two Olympic gold medals and a raft of world and Russian championships.

The tragedy of the film lies in the training of Tikhonov. The team, especially after the disappointment of losing to the U.S. in the 1980 Olympic semifinals, practiced virtually year-round, in close quarters, isolated from family and friends. You get a taste of how extreme their training was from the movie trailer:

It doesn't look like much fun, and yet the physical closeness of the players combined with their shared childhoods and common enemy, Tikhonov, to bring them together like no other team in the history of the game. Their bond manifested itself on the ice as an innate understanding of where their teammates would be at any given moment. Those Soviet teams played a balletic game that included countless lateral and drop passes. 

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The timing of this documentary is good for several reasons, one of which is hockey's burgeoning interest in statistics. In baseball, sabermetric analysts have declared "clubhouse chemistry" to be a fallacy and consider themselves chemistry's natural enemy. Much of the conventional wisdom that was debunked by statistics (e.g. excessive bunting) had also made baseball seem like more of a team game. Perhaps a little prematurely, sabermetrics decided that baseball was a game of individuals, and that the game was best evaluated with individual stats. 

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But hockey is a true team game, a sport in which the closeness of players off the ice can elevate their play on the ice—and the Red Army teams are the proof of this. With stats such as Corsi and Fenwick Close, analysts have the tools to measure how units work together. But many stats nerds are still chasing after the hockey-equivalent of WAR. We want itemized player contributions that add neatly up to a single win total. 

Much of that desire reflects the reality of the salary cap in today's NHL. Keeping great five-man units together in the modern age is nigh impossible. A general manager may marvel at the synchrony of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but when both hit free agency he needs to know in which player he is going to have to invest the GDP of a small nation. And even when a supergroup sticks together, the burden of the players' salaries forces their GM to sacrifice depth across the rest of the roster. And that, in turn, means that the players' talents have to be spread throughout the lineup. How often do we see Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on the ice together, five-on-five? Almost never.

Still, look no further than last year's Olympics to see hockey's own statistically-empowered skepticism of chemistry. That Team Canada would carry Penguins winger Chris Kunitz on its already stacked roster became a minor national crisis north of the border. There was ample evidence that showed that Kunitz's production was not a result of him being one of the best players in the NHL, but was instead a result of the fact that he spends much of his time on the ice playing to the left of Pittsburgh teammate Sidney Crosby. To their credit, Canada's coaches believed that no player could learn in just a few weeks to play effectively with Crosby, one of the few modern players who skates, passes and thinks at the speed of the Soviet game. They believed, in other words, in chemistry. The analytics crowd had, unwittingly, taken the position of defending the old, boring pre-Soviet era of hockey, when the best players were counted on to make the best plays no matter who else was on the ice. (Kunitz scored only one goal in Sochi, but Team Canada easily won the gold medal.)

To watch Red Army is to dream the most fantastic and totalitarian of HFBoards fantasies. I found myself imagining a horrible world in which the Berlin Wall had never fallen, and in which Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Kovalev, and Sergei Gonchar made amazing passes. Just think of a Red Army team with a top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Alex Radulov—just as skilled as the KLM Line but twice the size. 

Thankfully, we no longer live in a world where hockey players are forced to train together in isolation. But the game footage in Red Army is still beautiful, even with the understanding of the awful way in which it was achieved.

The film, like the team that it chronicles, celebrates the eccentric genius ofTarasov, a man who didn't settle for hockey as it was supposed to be played. Red Army urges hockey fans—even those on a quest to measure the individual's contribution to victory—to think creatively about the team, to strive for the ideal of the Russian five.