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Cold War propaganda and ice: Hockey doc debuts at Cannes

U.S. director Gabe Polsky, left, and former Captain of the Russian Red Army hockey team Slava Fetisov during a photocall for their documentary film "Red Army" at the Cannes Film Festival, May 16. (AFP / Alberto Pizzoli)

CANNES, France: Former Soviet hockey star Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov’s journey from national hero to political enemy is told in a documentary screening at Cannes, one featuring a first-hand account of the famed Red Army team captain’s fall from grace.

Molded into a winning machine by a disciplinarian coach, the Red Army national hockey side won the World Championships five times out of six years between 1978 and 1983.

Success came at a huge personal cost to players, prompting some like Fetisov, now 56, to begin questioning the status quo and the suffering it inflicted on them.

As the old Soviet system began to crumble, the country’s demise was mirrored in a loss of team form, resulting in the state turning on some of its former stars.

As U.S. filmmaker Gabe Polsky documents in “Red Army,” when Fetisov started to lose he was arrested and beaten up, friends stopped talking to him and the KGB put him under surveillance.

Hockey for the Soviet Union was not just sport. Its leaders used their team as a propaganda tool to prove the moral superiority of communism.

Polsky said that when making the film, he drew on his own experience as a hockey player and his background as the son of Soviet immigrants to the U.S.

Polsky says his parents rarely spoke about the past and so all he knew about Soviet hockey was the country’s “storied” loss to the U.S. at the 1980 Olympic games. At 13, the young Polsky joined a new team that hired a Soviet coach.

“Many in the Chicago hockey community didn’t take him seriously,” he said in the film’s production notes, “but he transformed my entire concept of the sport.

“I tracked down old Soviet footage and what I saw was eye-opening. Soviet hockey was amazingly creative and improvisational. The Soviets moved fluidly, like one body, and it looked more like an art form than a game.”

Polsky said he set out to show how “an incredibly oppressive system produced one of the greatest teams in history.”

The film, which tells its story through a blend of archival footage and interviews, was described by The Hollywood Reporter as “one of the most effortlessly pleasurable distractions in the Cannes festival program so far.”

Fetisov recalls that during the 1960s his parents saved for two years to buy his first ice skates and ate fish only once a week. He is now considered one of the best hockey players of all time, having won seven world championships, two Olympic gold medals and three Stanley Cups.

During the 1980s, he was one of the Soviet team’s famed core of five top players.

Awed opponents regarded them as possessing a “sixth sense with eyes in the back of their head.”

Such skills were hard-earned, with players spending 11 months of the year at an army-style hockey camp with only one weekend off a month. One was refused permission to visit his dying father while another complained that his daughter no long recognized him.

In 1989 the team’s star players, including Fetisov, pushed to be allowed to play in North America’s National Hockey League and he was the first Soviet citizen to secure a visa allowing him to play in the West.

The move did not go smoothly at first with the New Jersey Devils’ big-name hiring finding it difficult to perform surrounded by players with a more aggressive, more individualistic way of playing.

Only when reunited with former Red Army teammates in the U.S. did he regain his earlier sporting prowess, describing it as being like a “fish back in water.”

Long retired, today Fetisov is a member of the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia and took a leading role in bringing the Olympic Winter Games Sochi earlier this year.

He was minister for sport from 2002 to 2008 and, in a reversal of fortune, is now a close friend of his country’s President Vladimir Putin.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 23, 2014, on page 16.

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Summary

Former Soviet hockey star Viacheslav "Slava" Fetisov's journey from national hero to political enemy is told in a documentary screening at Cannes, one featuring a first-hand account of the famed Red Army team captain's fall from grace.

Molded into a winning machine by a disciplinarian coach, the Red Army national hockey side won the World Championships five times out of six years between 1978 and 1983 .

As the old Soviet system began to crumble, the country's demise was mirrored in a loss of team form, resulting in the state turning on some of its former stars.

Hockey for the Soviet Union was not just sport.

Polsky says his parents rarely spoke about the past and so all he knew about Soviet hockey was the country's "storied" loss to the U.S. at the 1980 Olympic games. At 13, the young Polsky joined a new team that hired a Soviet coach.


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