January 23, 2015


Red Army: Spirited documentary about Soviet hockey goes deep (BEN REITER, Jan. 22, 2015, Sports Illustrated)

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.

Posted by at January 23, 2015 7:08 PM

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