The Russian Hockey Machine

Avry Lewis-McDougall

Avry Lewis-McDougall

Russian history is something that I've always thought to be very interesting, Russian hockey history? Even cooler. A movie about both? I was all in. 

On Monday night, I had the chance to check out Red Army, a film that takes a very in depth look at the history of Soviet hockey, the Red Army hockey team, and the first wave of Russians that would make the jump to the NHL in the late 80s and early 90s.

The film, which was produced, written, and directed by Chicago filmmaker Gabe Polsky, explores much of the history of not just Soviet hockey, but Soviet culture, and how the state and sport were intertwined. Much of the story is told via a conversation with Polsky and legendary Soviet and CKSA Moscow (also known as the Red Army) defenceman Slava Fetisov, who would become one of the first USSR players to make the jump to the NHL with the New Jersey Devils in the 1989-90 season.

The film hits on so many topics, ranging from how skill over brute strength was the way of hockey coached by Anatoli Tarasov, the father of Russian hockey, to the Soviets domination at the World Hockey Championships in the 70s and 80s, to periods of turmoil with the transition from Tarasov to the borderline abusive Viktor Tikhonov as the manager of both the national team and CKSA Moscow.

Viewers also get a glance at very rare footage of the training regimen of the national team, who were not only hockey players, but also officers in the Soviet military. They played, trained, ate, and lived together 11 months of of the year, only visiting family on weekends.

Celebrating birthdays and holidays? Out of the question. Hockey was quite literally the only thing in many players lives.

It's a foregone conclusion that a desire to play in the NHL as a Soviet in the 80s wasn’t exactly encouraged by managers or Soviet officials.

Ilya Kovalchuk at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Photo by S. Yume.

Ilya Kovalchuk at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Photo by S. Yume.

The stars of the Soviet national teams played as a five man unit with the captain Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, Alexei Kasatonov, and the late Vladimir Krutov, who dominated the international level with Olympic and World Championship titles, and at the domestic level with, CKSA Moscow won the Soviet Championship League title an astounding 13 times in a row, from 1977 to 1989.

Aside from Fetisov, there are segments with Krutov and Kasatonov, who was very much opposed Fetisov refusing to play for Tikhonov, and wanting to play for the New Jersey Devils. Kasatonov's relationship with Fetisov became quite strained and pretty awkward once both men ended up playing together on the same Devils team.

There are also interviews and archival footage in the film from some of the most powerful and influential people in Canadian hockey, such as names like Scotty Bowman and Wayne Gretzky, both of whom had nothing but glowing things to say about the Russians, and their style of play, which incorporated a dizzying amount of passing in the offensive zone, and scoring opportunities that saw every player on the ice touching the puck before a shot in some situations.

Fear was something that North Americans truly had 30 years ago, not just for the USSR, but the hockey team as well. They were being told, and truly believed, that the Soviets didn't show emotion, that they were robots when in actuality they were just men who enjoyed representing their country and playing their sport at the highest level. There was nothing robotic about them.

The lack of ability to see how the Soviets played lulled North Americans into a false sense of security, that our way of playing the game was the best, and boy did many Canadians get a wakeup call when the Soviets hammered Canada 8-1 in the final of the 1981 Canada Cup. Over the next few years the Soviets would beat perennial NHL championship teams such as the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Islanders in exhibition matches.

Even non-hockey supporters would find interest in 'Red Army,' as it not only shows the changing of the hockey landscape, but the final days of the Soviet Union in the 90s, the rise of the Russian Federation, and capitalism in the largest country in the world. Yes, they're still larger than us.

The original wave of Russians opened up doors for hundreds of Russian players to make the jump to North America. If players like Fetisov and Larionov never made the jump, who knows how much the timeline of the NHL would have changed?

Hands down this is a 10/10 movie, if you think you knew the history of Russian hockey, trust me there’s so much more that you'll discover once this film begins.