Some of us are old enough to remember the “Red Scare,” when as schoolchildren in the 1950s, at the height of The Cold War, we practiced hiding under our desks in case of nuclear attack. Yes, you read that right.
Some of us are old enough to remember that the Russians actually launched the Sputnik first in the “space race.” The U.S.S.R seemed like a juggernaut, a Red Tide unstoppable on the other side of the globe – as if China and Russia were a big monolithic political system that was threatening to spread as far as Cuba (remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?) and yes, Vietnam.
According to film writer and director Gabe Polsky, it was Stalin who personally ordered the Soviet hockey team to be part of the Army, because he wanted to take pride in the way it would outshine its Western opponents and so demonstrate the superiority of the Communist system.
It’s fitting that Polsky uses a clip from a Ronald Reagan to introduce his documentary, warning us solemnly about the dangers of Communism. This was before Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, of course, and before the cracks in their armor began to show. Their military was big, strong and menacing. They had nuclear capability. Their socialist economics appeared to be working – or at the very least, their people weren’t starving.
This story is largely told from the perspective of Vyacheslov “Slava” Fetisov, who was born in 1958 just 13 years after the Red Army had driven the vaunted invading Nazis back into Berlin. Slava was always a great athlete, even as a boy, and hockey was king in Russia in those days. So naturally, that is what Slava played. At age 9, he made the elite team that would spend 11 months out of the year in a special hockey camp, working out four times a day. Slava recalls how living conditions for his family were spartan and meager at best: 400 square feet for several families living together. The hockey camp, at least, brought him some recognition among his peers and a lot of attention from coaches. The team they produced during the late 1970s was so good that it easily beat their opposition, even the all-Canada team that included Wayne Gretsky… and even an all-NHL team. They seemed unbeatable.
Then came the 1980 Olympics and the “miracle on ice,” which was won by some of America’s college students against the Big Red Machine. Fetisov and his mates were devastated, of course, but it only made them go back to Russia and train even harder.
For the rest of the 1980s their “starting five” were virtually unbeatable. They had an intricate, swirling, frequently-pass-the-puck kind of offense that dazzled and bewildered their opponents. And nobody was in better condition than these men-machines.
But now the Soviet Union was coming apart at the seams. Afghanistan was a complete disaster, the economy was collapsing along with the political system, and Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost – supposedly openness and listening – essentially amounted to capitulation and resignation. Gorbachev capitulates, the government dissolves into 14 separate states, and capitalism arrives in its most virulent from: opportunistic greed from ruthless robber barons. The bewildered populace, no longer guaranteed anything from the government, mostly struggles to subsist on less-than-subsistence wages, while corruption abounds and new mafias thrive, the ruthless leadership often comprised of former KGB agents.
Fetisov recounts his journey into the NHL. At first he struggled, but once reunited with his key teammates on a Detroit Red Wings team, they rediscover their choreographed magic and win a Stanley Cup. Fetisov, though, isn’t interested in becoming an American citizen. He returns to Russia to help run the governmental sports program, building hockey rinks and sponsoring kid’s leagues. He is a man who’s had an extraordinary athletic career by any measure, and yet at times he seems ineffectually buffeted by the rapidly changing times in which he has lived.
It’s fascinating to see all this “from the other side.” Fetisov is both thoroughly modern and still fiercely Russian, despite, or perhaps because of, his sojourn in America. And not all of his emotional pauses are because of his still-imperfect English. But for that famous hockey team called “Red Army,” there was a time when nobody did it better.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.