Mastering the Weave: How the Soviet Hockey Documentary ‘Red Army’ Scored

Polsky Films

A scroll through newsreel images lands on the Kremlin. Another scroll and the computer monitor is overrun by hockey players somersaulting across slick sheets of ice. Raw feeds from NBC News capture the chaos of the August Putsch. Khrushchev twirls a kebab over a bonfire.

Seated at the monitor is Gabe Polsky, the 35-year-old director of Red Army, a documentary chronicling the Central Red Army hockey team (CSKA Moscow), one of the most successful dynasties in professional sports. An audience favorite on the festival circuit throughout 2014, as well as the opening-night selection at the Moscow International Film Festival in June, Red Army also has the distinction of being the only sports film to be executive produced by Werner Herzog.1

I’d shadowed Polsky at festivals in New York and our shared hometown of Chicago; each viewing of Red Army suggested the well of archival footage he’d unearthed in his research was bottomless. When Polsky accepted my request to pore over his deleted scenes and unlicensed archival footage, I visited his production office in Los Angeles, at the delta of the Sunset Strip, just off Doheny Drive. For an afternoon we sat in an edit bay lined with hard drives sheathed in bubble wrap, unpacking an enigma. It soon became clear why this room had earned its nickname: the Soviet Vortex.

Polsky, a former center for the Yale hockey team whose parents are Ukrainian émigrés, is impatient with the mouse. He clicks through MPEGs like he’s shooting in warm-ups. I suggest that he slow down, in hopes of examining the images in more detail. Even the ads lining the boards in Soviet rinks demand a closer look. Finally something catches Polsky’s eye. He scrolls back to a close-up of a scoreboard and laughs when he sees the lopsided result: USSR 8, Poland 1.

“Here’s Krutov’s funeral,” Polsky says, reeling in the dragnet. We pause to watch a Russian news segment honoring the late hockey star. Polsky’s interview with Vladimir Krutov, conducted at the Luzhniki Palace of Sports in Moscow, is perhaps the most haunting exchange in Red Army. Decades after playing with his teammates in Moscow, Krutov says he still sees them in his dreams.2 A month after the interview, Krutov died of liver failure, at 52.

On the monitor, Krutov’s casket, which is positioned in the offensive zone of the CSKA Ice Palace in Moscow, receives a stream of mourners. The footage is startlingly intimate. Outside the rink, attendees speak to reporters about their fallen comrade.

Polsky points out that one interviewee is the father of Igor Larionov, the ingenious center of the “Russian Five” unit that dominated international competition in the 1980s. Larionov was flanked by Krutov and Sergei Makarov on the wing and bolstered by the fluid skating of defensemen Alexei Kasatonov and Vyacheslav Fetisov, who emerges as the star of Red Army.

Outside Krutov’s funeral, Igor Larionov is somber when speaking with reporters. “He’s saying he lived to play,” Polsky says. He quickly dismisses his coarse translation. “It’s more he’s saying he lived with his wins. Does that make sense?” Polsky leans in closer. “He was a very humble man,” he continues. “When he scored, he didn’t want to embarrass the other team.” If the eighth goal against Poland came off Krutov’s stick, odds are his arms remained at his side, not skyward. Celebrations were often confined to the shoulders. Businesslike. They called him “The Tank.”3

A knock on the door summons Polsky to a conference call in his office. Before leaving, he queues an extensive interview with Pavel Bure, a former Red Army winger and one of the undisputed stars of the NHL in the ’90s, a single frame of which didn’t make the final cut of Red Army — a testament to the depth of the reporting for the film. Seated before an untouched teacup, Bure appears as youthful now as the days when he zip-lined past goalies on the slickest of breakaways. Seated off camera, Polsky asks Bure about the famously brutal training regimen of Viktor Tikhonov, the former coach of CSKA Moscow, who died in November.4 Bure explains that he grew up in a “sports family” — his father, Vladimir Bure, is a former Olympic swimmer — and in his mind, “it was sorta normal.” Tikhonov demanded that his players live in a compound for 11 months a year, shut off from the world and breathing only hockey. Bure’s teammate Alexander Mogilny, who famously defected in 1989, once said of his time in Tikhonov’s compound, “I lived like a homeless dog.” As Bure grew older, he began to sympathize with the “family men in their thirties,” like Fetisov, who struggled in exile. But he’d always known the stakes were high. When he first auditioned for CSKA Moscow as a 6-year-old, his directives were clear: Crack the top line by 7, or be pulled.

Polsky slips back into the edit bay, apologizing for his absence. “What else can I show you?” he wonders aloud. He’s been editing the film for more than a year, but the project still doesn’t seem entirely put to rest. While searching archived material, Polsky occasionally winces, regretting a particular shot he hadn’t used. At one point we pause to marvel at an outdoor game attended by spectators wearing ushankas caked in snow.

“Here we go, here’s Fetisov,” Polsky says, drilling a fresh well of footage. On a Russian news broadcast, Fetisov and his daughter stand before a ballot box, posing ceremoniously before casting a vote. Unable to follow the news anchor, I assume the vote involves Fetisov’s seat in the upper house of the Federal Assembly, a position he still holds. Few former athletes have become as entrenched in local Russian politics. Along with his role as senator, Fetisov was appointed Minister of Sport by Vladimir Putin, a title he held from 2002 to 2008. He was a member of the delegation that lured the Olympics to Sochi, and he served as chairman of the Kontinental Hockey League’s Board of Directors. As a player, he is perhaps the most decorated retiree walking the planet; when Polsky introduces Fetisov in Red Army, he piles on so many chyrons identifying career milestones — Hall of Famer, Stanley Cup champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist — that they tumble offscreen like a Frank Tashlin sight gag.

red-army-polskyPolsky Films

A knock summons Polsky to another phone call. (On this particular mid-December afternoon, Polsky, whose film is distributed under the Sony umbrella, is caught in a North Korean quagmire. Precautions are necessary.) Alone again in the Soviet Vortex, I study a dry-erase board on the wall diagramming “The Weave,” a complex network of passes used by the Red Army to whisk the puck into the offensive zone and tie defenders in knots. A series of time codes is scrawled beneath the crudely drawn rink. When Polsky returns, I ask if the time codes are his editor’s handiwork — an attempt to keep tabs on mind-bending highlight reels.

“I don’t even remember,” Polsky says. “The funny thing is, that’s not even accurate. The Weave was way more complicated than that.”

As he examines the board, I flash back to my first encounter with Polsky, in October at the New York Film Festival, where Red Army screened to a packed house. While Polsky posed for a portrait photographer in the greenroom of Lincoln Center after a screening, Fetisov, who had landed from Moscow that afternoon for a rare Stateside visit, stood with his arms crossed, studying his own portrait, which was hanging on the wall to dry. The room was lined with portraits of festival participants, past and present — Naomi Watts, George Clooney, Asia Argento — but Fetisov admired only Fetisov.5

After the shoot, I convened with Fetisov and Polsky in a cramped room in the basement that felt remarkably like a locker room. Fetisov was gracious but cryptic. His eyes were often downcast as he scanned his cell phone. (The eyeglasses resting atop his head provided a much-needed focal point.) In Red Army, Fetisov repeatedly consults his phone during on-camera interviews, at one point flipping Polsky a no-look bird when he attempts to jump-start a conversation. Questions are routinely poke checked into the corners. As I soon discovered, Fetisov is also prone to reanimate at any moment, like when he shared a rousing rendition of how Madison Square Garden hecklers sound to a Soviet ear.

I asked how he felt being drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 1978, when he was a rising star behind the Iron Curtain.6 “I didn’t even know I was drafted,” Fetisov says. “It was never even mentioned to me.” No one — a scout, a journalist — ever slipped him the news? “Maybe they asked some questions about me being drafted at a press conference, but it was never translated to me. Even in 1988, I didn’t know I was drafted by the New Jersey Devils.” Another shrug. “I was happy to play on my team in the Soviet Union,” he says, skimming a new text.

Once he reached the NHL, Fetisov felt most at home with the Red Wings, where he anchored a revived Russian Five unit that was instrumental in bringing consecutive Stanley Cups to Detroit (’97, ’98). “It was like a fish put back in water,” Fetisov says in Red Army. He was reunited with Larionov, and his fellow Soviet-raised Wings — Sergei Fedorov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, and Vladimir Konstantinov — were given room to operate by coach Scotty Bowman.

Speaking by phone from Sarasota, Florida, Bowman recalled his first encounter with a Russian national team, as an assistant coach for the Ottawa Junior Canadiens in 1956. “We got beat, in our rink, 10-1,” Bowman says. “It was the biggest shock I ever had. That was the first time I saw the Russians play. Then, of course, I became fascinated by them.”

Bowman took the helm in Detroit in 1993, and eventually instigated a trade for Larionov and acquired an idle Fetisov from New Jersey, rounding out a five-man Russian unit. “The first time we played them together was the first game after we got Fetisov, in Calgary. My god, they made some plays that were fantastic. It was like the Harlem Globetrotters throwing the ball around. I never really figured out where the plays were coming from.

“I never used them exclusively, because I wondered how other teams might try to defend them. So I would kind of slide them in, on occasion, and in the playoffs quite a bit, especially when we needed a lift. They played a totally different puck-possession style than the NHL played. They wanted to prove they were a different kind of player.”

“When you play the Russian style, you need all five players on the ice on the same wavelength,” Polsky says. “That’s why I made the movie. I was motivated to bring to light this profound expression of creativity in sport. It goes beyond just hockey. The Soviet legacy in North America in the ’80s was the Miracle loss, and the rest no one knew about. I thought not just about the domination, but how beautifully they played. What it meant for human progress.”

The sophistication of the Soviet program can be traced to Anatoli Tarasov, whom Polsky has dubbed “the godfather” of hockey in the USSR. As a coach, father figure, and cultural impresario, Tarasov introduced influences like chess and ballet into the consciousness of his players. His books on hockey artistry were at Fetisov’s bedside as a child. The training footage Polsky unearthed makes Tarasov’s tenure as coach of the Soviet national team seem like a kind of Eden. Under Tikhonov, Fetisov says, they were programmed into “ice robots.”

When Bowman coached the Montreal Canadiens, the team hosted CSKA Moscow in 1975. Tarasov was retired, though he still traveled with the team. “Tarasov was a very friendly guy,” Bowman says. “He watched one of our practices, and post-practice, we had an interview with an interpreter. I used to watch [the Russians’] practices, which looked like total confusion to us, because they utilized every part of the ice, all kinds of things going on. Tarasov liked our team and gave me some ideas. There were three drills of ours that he liked. He had ideas how I should use Guy Lafleur.”

This spirit of camaraderie was something Polsky could relate to. “My hockey coach as a 13-year-old was a disciple of Tarasov,” he says. “He was one of the first to bring these methods and drills to the United States.” At the hometown premiere of Red Army, at the Chicago International Film Festival, Polsky had the opportunity to ask his former coach, Stan Stiopkin, to stand and receive applause from the crowd.

At his production office in Los Angeles, I ask Polsky more about the training methods that shaped him as a player. “Everything [Stiopkin] did was unusual to other people,” he says. “We would do warm-ups outside before the game. Everyone assumed we would get too tired before the game. But his philosophy was that, no, you’re getting stronger. It might not be this game that you win, but you’ll become a better athlete.”

Polsky had options to play elsewhere in Chicagoland, but he wanted to connect with a coach who shared his heritage. Stiopkin, an Estonian, insisted on dry-land training, which confused his squad of suburbanites. “We would run around on the grass, carrying tires and dekeing trees,” Polsky says. “We would carry each other’s feet and wheelbarrow with our hands. We’d carry each other piggyback and flip each other over. It was a little dangerous, but it was about building trust.”

As we wrap up our interview, Polsky excuses himself for one last call. In his absence, I notice a hockey trophy on his desk. It is modest — squat, not towering — with a figurine mounted on a puck lined with the words “Made in Slovakia.” It brings to mind a recent Chicago Tribune article about star forward Marian Hossa. While growing up in present-day Slovakia, Hossa traded some hockey cards for a VHS tape of Wayne Gretzky highlights when he was 7. On communist-controlled airwaves, NHL clips were scarce, so Hossa studied the tape in private and later emulated Gretzky’s moves on the ice. Likewise, Polsky speaks often of his fascination with a VHS tape of the Soviet national team, which he also encountered as a kid. Watching their play on the ice was magical, he told the Lincoln Center crowd. “It was something I’d never seen before, almost like a religious experience for me at the time.”

When Polsky returns, I ask about the trophy. He shares a few memories of his junior career, and explains how the trophy, humble as it was — he’d performed particularly well in a tournament in Massachusetts crawling with scouts — represents something eternal. “To me that’s about getting to the place where you’re at peace.”

The significance of the trophy is heartening, given that awards season now looms. Red Army was a hit at Cannes and collected awards throughout its yearlong festival run, but it was noticeably absent from the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature. (Hollywood Elsewhere chalked up the Academy’s snub to “Geezer Russophobia.”) The film might not have cracked the top-five lineup of Oscar nominees, but Polsky is unfazed. When you play the Russian style, as he’s learned, you need all five players on the same wavelength for the weave to work.

James Hughes is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has written for Slate, The Atlantic, and the National Hockey League.

Correction: Bowman was an assistant coach for the Ottawa Junior Canadiens, not the Ottawa-Hull Canadiens. We regret the error.

Filed Under: Hockey, Red Army, Gabe Polsky, Anatoli Tarasov, Wayne Gretzky, Vladimir Krutov, Sergei Makarov, The Russian Five, Vyacheslav Fetisov