“Red Army” is a documentary about the nation-wide hockey program of the USSR of the 1970’s and 1980’s, but of course this movie is about so much more, it is about the people within this system, the ones who ran it, and how it reflected the Soviet system overall as well as the Cold War between the Soviets and the capitalist West.
The focus of the film is Viacheslav Fetisov, which I am sure upsets him a little because as the captain of the USSR national hockey team and a product of dozens of years of Soviet-style teachings starting with him at a very young age, he has totally bought into the socialism, “there is no I in team” mentality, but he does deserve to be singled out among the rest of the team because of his insanely long list of accomplishments and rewards. Starting at 8 or 9 years old, he was entered into the Soviet hockey program, which found and cultivated the best players throughout the entire country and brought them up to eventually play for the National team. And on top of that the government practically made it mandatory for all men to at least attempt to play hockey, seeking to root out the best of the best, and using the sport as an opportunity to prove that their model of governance was the best one.
So Fetisov pretty much narrates most of the movie, telling the story of his rise through the ranks and leading the team to a number of Olympic medal games and world championships and all sorts of other feats of dominance. But “Red Army” is about more than how the team was amazing, but it also gets into the human cost of a program that views these players as nothing more than property to be exploited. They made practically no money and were forced to stay in training camp for 11 months out of the year, constantly training for the next game, never being allowed to see their families for any reason. But then when they won so much, it was hard to argue with the results. The Soviets developed a style of play that was graceful and seemingly impossible to defend, and outside of the Miracle on Ice game, they were downright unbeatable.
But when the Soviet empire started crumbling and the NHL came knocking with their million dollar contract offers, it was only a matter of time before the Soviet players made their way to the Americas to play, but that came with its own set of complications, especially for Fetisov, who at this point was the national face of hockey int he USSR, an asset that the government was loathe to give up. And the government did fully control the hockey team and hockey players, going so far as to make the team officially a part of the Soviet army, which made their players part of the army as well, and they definitely ran that thing like it was the army, not a sport.
So that was all crazy enough already, and then when the Soviets finally made their way to the NHL all on different teams, they found that they couldn’t gel with their teams, who all played much more individualistic hockey, as opposed to the very team-based hockey perfected by the Soviets. So on top of the struggles of these guys being on losing teams for the first time in their lives, they also have the problems of not being accepted by their teammates and other members of the league, who view them mainly through the anti-USSR Cold War lens, immediately distrusting of them as people solely because of where they came from. But what happened when one smart team decided to put all these former Soviet teammates together on one NHL team? Well what do you THINK happened?
Even if you don’t like hockey or sports in general, you would still find this documentary pretty fascinating because it is specifically about people, friendships, betrayals, all of the things that make humanity so interesting.