Slava Fetisov remembers the moment like it was yesterday, the knock on his U.S. hotel room door when he was visiting the country as captain of the Soviet hockey team. Outside stood Lou Lamoriello, the New Jersey Devils general manager, with an offer of freedom that would be irresistible to most in his position.
“He said, ‘You can get in a car now, and we’ll give you a nice house and a nice contract and also take care of your family, and you don’t have to live like this anymore,’” Fetisov recalled in an interview. “It really would have been easy to defect. But I couldn’t do it. It was illegal, and I couldn’t turn my back on my country.”
Fetisov, one of the most decorated players in the history of hockey, is having lunch at a beachside restaurant in this coastal resort town that epitomizes Western glitz, talking about “Red Army,” a new film about him and the punishing system he played in. At the next table, Roman Polanski is dining with a few friends, the sight of another polarizing exile equally relaxed driving home just how far Fetisov and the world have come.
Several years after that moment with Lamoriello, the star defenseman would endure a lengthy, painful negotiation with the Kremlin to become one of the first Russians in the NHL. He arrived, with the New Jersey Devils, in 1989.
In the quarter-century since, Fetisov has, willingly or (more often) not, become a symbol of the Cold War and its aftermath. He is claimed by both the U.S. and Russia, even in hindsight, as a symbol of their respective ideological righteousness, even as he never quite did what either side wanted.
Fetisov’s complicated story is told in large part by the complicated man himself in “Red Army,” a documentary from American filmmaker Gabe Polsky that premiered several days ago at Cannes ahead of a likely Oscar qualifying run by distributor Sony Pictures Classics later this year.
Most documentaries examining Russian hockey look at the 1980 Fetisov-led team that lost to the Americans at the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., if they look at Russian hockey at all. In “Red Army,” that game is just one moment in a long and fraught history. Polsky covers the waterfront, from the 1950s development of the hockey machine in the postwar Soviet Union to the Alex Ovechkin-centric integration that permeates the NHL today. (Incidentally, documentarian Jonathan Hock is also working on a movie about the Soviet hockey teams of the 1980s for ESPN.)
This captivating film sees Polsky traveling frequently to Russia and talking to players and experts on both sides of the globe to track the story of Russian hockey and, in so doing, the Cold War itself. What “Red Army” makes clear is that Russia saw its ambitions realized through hockey, not only because it could take pride in its national triumphs but also because the team itself was a crown jewel of its central-planning approach and a reflection of its collectivist mentality.
How the U.S. and the Russians played the game, the film explains — the U.S. focusing on individual achievement and Russia emphasizing a team collective — reflected their divergent ideologies.
It is Fetisov who is the spine of the story, as Polsky builds the film around a three-part interview he conducted with the star, now 56.
“I didn’t intend to make this about Fetisov or about politics,” Polsky said in an interview. “But the story of the Cold War is the story of Russian hockey, and the story of Russian hockey is the story of Fetisov.”
A gifted defenseman who was as skillful heading to the net as he was clearing pucks out of his own zone, Fetisov played for two decades on a team with players NHL fans will later recall as that first wave of stars from the former Eastern Bloc, including Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov. For years, the Soviet national team was considered the best in the world, winning gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games (indeed, one thing the film reminds those of us who still focus on the Miracle on Ice is how the club went on to recover its dominant form after the humiliation at the Lake Placid Olympics.)
Leading the group was the controversial Viktor Tikhonov, the national team’s Politburo-style coach who could push the players so far it verged on abuse.
And at the center of it was Fetisov. After bringing medals and glory to his home country for years (often while playing with the team abroad under the watchful eye of KGB agents), he seemed to be part of a new era of freedom in 1988 when the Soviets said they would allow him to play in the NHL.
But the regime was toying with him, saying in public it was allowing him to leave as part of President Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) initiatives but privately telling him they were never letting him out. Fetisov pushed back — to limited avail. Despite being one of the most successful and public figures in the Soviet Union, he was denied and insulted, and in at least one instance even beaten, as his wife recalls in the film.
The Kremlin finally said that he could go but that he had to bring most of his million-dollar salary back to the motherland.
“You have to understand what Fetisov went through,” Polsky said. “He was being used up by the Soviets and then sold like a slave. It’s hard to imagine what that feels like.” (An independent-film financier and producer, Polsky grew up playing hockey in Chicago before eventually winning a spot on Yale’s Division I team, the product of a system as different from Fetisov’s as one can get. But he grew up with Russian parents and said he felt the shame of being different whenever his parents spoke Russian — a sting that helped him relate to Fetisov.)
Fetisov pushed back against the Kremlin’s demands, saying again and again he wouldn’t go if he couldn’t keep the majority of the purse. “It’s not easy to take on the whole Soviet system,” he recalled in the interview, with a certain swagger.
He eventually won many of his demands and soon after arrived to play with the Devils.
Not that it got easier when he arrived. NHL players shunned him, he said, fearful on multiple counts.
“If you hear a player is coming from the Soviet Union and he could take your job, and he’s part of the ‘Evil Empire’ and he doesn’t speak your language, you’re going to look at him like an enemy when he walks into the locker room,” Fetisov, a gruff but at times surprisingly vulnerable personality, said. “And I felt that. For the first few years I kept saying to my wife, ‘Let’s go back. This is not healthy.’ ”
He stuck it out, despite also being frustrated in a hockey system that emphasized individualism over team play and physicality over the more Russian approach of chess-like passing and creativity. The stats and wins dried up.
It began to grow easier when other Russians arrived, especially when they could play together. Fetisov and his former teammates were vindicated when the Red Wings’ Scott Bowman reunited a number of them. They clicked, and brought the Stanley Cup to Detroit in 1997 and 1998.
Fetisov remains as outspoken and uncategorizable as ever.
Despite all his success in the U.S. — and the way the Russian government treated him — he returned to his home country in 2002 at the request of President Vladimir Putin, who appointed him the minister of sport. In the six years since he left the position, he has become a member of the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia and helped found the KHL, the Russian-oriented hockey league.
Asked about the current situation in the Ukraine, he takes a more pro-Russia position than one might expect from someone who had so often battled with the power hierarchy there. “You have to realize that 96% of the people there speak Russian,” he said. “They want this.”
And queried about a renewal in Russia-U.S. tensions and what he makes of it given his long history with the subject, he says, “I’ve been trying to understand this for a long time. Ever since the Cold War. Why do Americans care that much? How does the Ukraine affect people in Michigan or Arizona?
“They say the Soviets were really good at propaganda, but look at how the Miracle on Ice is taught: It’s ‘the good guys won; we beat the evil Russians.’ How is that not propaganda? There are people on all sides of politics who will use things like hockey to their advantage.”