Film director Gabe Polsky dropped by Ferrall on the Bench on Tuesday to discuss his new documentary, “Red Army,” which tells the story of the Soviet hockey team that lost to the United States during the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid.
The film, which opens Friday, also provides a glimpse into Cold War Russia and the Iron Curtain and explains how the Soviets built arguably the best hockey team ever assembled.
“They live together and die together,” Polsky said of the Russian national team. “It was a tough life. These guys lived 11 months of the year in a base. They weren’t allowed to see their families. The coaching was – not just in hockey, but in the whole Soviet system – notoriously dictatorial and difficult, manipulative. Typical kind of Soviet authority behavior. These guy has a tough life. But they bonded together. And that’s sort of the legacy of Soviet hockey. Like you said, these five-man units that got so tight. The chemistry was incredible.”
The players were seemingly bred from birth to play hockey in five-man units. Slava Fetisov, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov and Alexei Kasatonov formed arguably the best five-man rotation in Russian history. After losing to the Americans, the Soviets were sequestered from their families and endured even more intense training. They won the goal in 1984 and 1988, but the players grew to hate their coach, Viktor Tikhonov, and became disenchanted with the system.
Polsky was able to pursue this documentary through the help of a family member, who knew Vladislav Tretiak, who was a goalie on the 1980 team.
“Towards the end, (Tretiak) couldn’t take it anymore,” Polsky said of the Soviet team’s training and lifestyle. “He wanted a little more independence. He wanted to play in the NHL. I think a lot of them did. But someone in my family knew him, and we started there. One interview led to another, and finally on the last day of my Moscow shoot, Fetisov granted me 15-minute interview that turned into a five-hour interview.”
Fetisov, who won two Olympic gold medals and two Stanley Cup Championships, is one of the most decorated hockey players in Soviet history.
“He didn’t want to do (the interview),” Polsky said. “I knew he was one of the most decorated athletes in the Soviet Union – captain, leader of the Soviet national team. He was an important figure in Soviet sport, and I needed him, but he didn’t want to do it. And finally for some reason he called me up and said, ‘I’ll do it, but you got 15 minutes.’ That turned into five hours.”
Ferrall called Fetisov, a defenseman, the “most influential Russian hockey player ever.”
“Everyone plays a different position, so it all depends on your taste,” Polsky said. “Fetisov, if you like defensemen, he’s one of the greatest of all time. I heard Gretzky say he was the most difficult defenseman to play against.”
Scott Ferrall could not believe just now devastated and emotional Fetisov became in the documentary while discussing the 1980 loss. In fact, Ferrall remembers watching the game in his youth and seeing the Americans dance on the ice right after their win. The Soviets, meanwhile, were standing on the blue line, holding their sticks in complete disbelief.
“Tretiak said he’s never seen a happier people in his life than that day,” Polsky said.