Greetings again from the darkness. You need not be a hockey fan to be familiar with the “Miracle on Ice” upset of the seasoned Russians by the upstart Americans at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Often referred to as a battle of cultures – “our way vs their way, capitalism vs communism” – most articles, TV shows, and movies have been presented from the American perspective. It’s only now, in this informative and entertaining documentary from filmmaker Gabe Polsky, that we gain some insight into the Russian players and their way of life.
Mr. Polsky is the son of Russian immigrants, and grew up playing hockey in Chicago and later for Yale. His research into Russian hockey evolved into a documentary that blends sports, geopolitics, history, culture, and personal stories. He mixes in some fantastic archival film footage from the 1970’s and 80’s, but the heart of everything here flows from the interviews with Russian hockey legend Vyacheslav Fetisov, who is a vital and unique link to past and present. Much of this is set to the distinctive sounds of Russian folk music.
Fetisov is sometimes playful and sometimes snide in his remarks, but he basically narrates the history of Russian hockey – starting with Stalin’s founding of the organization, through the two key coaches: father figure Tarasov and the militant Tikhanov who followed. Stalin was convinced that Russian domination of global sports would clearly establish communism and the Russian culture as far superior to capitalism and the carefree ways of the west. This led to the Red Army hockey camps being run by the military. The players were isolated for eleven months each year, training and playing in a manner that generated ultimate teamwork, but also quite unhappy young men.
We see the influence of Russian chess (Karpov) and the Bolshoi ballet for training methods, and we also see the ever-present KGB ensuring no “escapes”, or what we might know better as defections. We learn about the Russian Five (including Fetisov) who were so dominant that the team went two years without losing. Gold medals in Sarajevo (1984) and Calgary (1988) occurred just prior to the 1991 dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and the economic crisis of the region.
This is what opened the door for Russian hockey players to enter the NHL, though the transition was smoother for some than others. After a few years of adjusting, it was coach Scotty Bowman’s 1997 Detroit Red Wings that won the Stanley Cup with a contingency of Russian players (including Fetisov) who were given free reign to play their own game while on the ice. Their movements and intricate teamwork clashed mightily with the individualistic style of westerners … and that group of Russian players can be credited with helping the game to evolve to its current style.
Much of the insight comes from the faces of the men who are interviewed. Their stoicism and lack of emotion is a microcosm of the society in which they were raised. Their country was obliterated by war, and then led by a megalomaniac who wanted to rule the world. Human emotion and the rights of individuals mattered little, and we see that despite the years of hardship, these players remain (mostly) true and loyal to their country. This is a fascinating look at human nature and how the culture of one’s youth can directly impact the beliefs as an adult, so many years later.
watch the trailer: