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How Soviet hockey ruled the world — and then fell apart

Explained by the director of the documentary Red Army.

The famed "Red Army" Soviet hockey team of the 1980s.
The famed "Red Army" Soviet hockey team of the 1980s.
Sony Pictures Classics

The famous "Miracle on Ice" is perhaps the hockey game most Americans know best. In that game, which occurred on February 22, 1980, a young group of US players defeated a seasoned Soviet team in a shocker cemented by Al Michaels's famous play call of "Do you believe in miracles?" The Americans would go on to win the gold medal, after defeating Finland in their final game.

But for the Soviets, the loss was the beginning of a transformative period, in which the former coach was removed, many veteran players were booted from the national team, and the program would find a new way forward throughout the 1980s. A new coach, disliked by his players, would put together one of the most effective group of players in history, utterly dominating the decade in ways that challenged even the NHL's most famous players in exhibition matches.

The story of that period — and how it ultimately ran into the collapse of the USSR — is the subject of the documentary Red Army. In 2015, to commemorate the film’s release, I talked with its director, Gabe Polsky, about what made the Soviet system so special, whether the players were wrong to dislike their new coach, and the prejudice Soviet players faced as they immigrated to North America and the NHL.

Todd VanDerWerff: What, to you, are the big ways the Soviets changed the way we play hockey?

Gabe Polsky: They approached it from a philosophical and creative standpoint. The creator of Soviet-style hockey is Anatoli Tarasov, who studied chess and ballet and literature. He made it more of a magical thing to watch, a deep expression of human creativity. It was a very fluid style, improvisational. They were playing jazz on the ice.

The North American system was more conservative and linear and systematic, almost primitive. They didn't take the creative chances the Soviets did. The Soviets played more of a possession game. They wanted to possess the puck the entire game. You see them weaving around the ice, in constant movement and circling and passing.

TV: You deal with the players coming into the North American system and how they had problems with that. What was the biggest difference they found as they moved into the NHL?

GP: It's not just a cultural clash. It's a clash of ideas on how to play the sport. These are guys who knew complex physics, let's say, and then they're forced to do 1 + 1 = 2. The Soviet style, you have to have five guys on the ice who really know that style and can play it and create together. You can't just put a talented guy on a North American team and expect him to succeed.

It's a style that you need all five guys to play together. The North American style is more of an individualist game. You saw that the guys were having trouble adjusting to that game, sort of dumbing themselves down in a way.

TV: Has the Soviet style influenced modern hockey?

GP: It has. It's a complicated question, because clearly a lot of the Russians now are playing in the NHL. You see a little more dynamic players nowadays. But at the same time, you still don't see that collective brilliance, the weaving, that constant passing. In fact in the NHL, it's rare to see four, five passes in a row. It usually gets broken up. It still has a long way to go as far as creativity and ingenuity. You see maybe two or three nice plays a game, whereas in that era, the Soviets, every time they touched the puck, they did something interesting.

TV: What did you find was the Soviet response to the Miracle on Ice game?

GP: They're a bit tired of talking about it, because any time a Western journalist talks to them, they mention the Miracle on Ice or want to talk about it. It's a story we all know. It's been played over and over. Nobody asks them about what they contributed to the game. In fact, the Miracle on Ice overshadows any other achievement of Soviet hockey.

[Viacheslav] Fetisov [a famous defenseman for the Soviets] jokes that his most famous medal is not a Stanley Cup or gold medal. It's the silver medal from the 1980 Olympics. They see it as they underestimated their opponent and lost. That happens in sport. It happens all the time. But Americans made it into this 35-year celebration. It's a good story, but they just lost at the wrong time in the wrong place, and it became all anyone remembers here in the United States about Soviet hockey.

TV: What are some of the big games that were big moments for them that have been the most overshadowed?

GP: They won almost every Olympic Games since, like, the '50s. [The USSR won its first gold medal in Olympic hockey in 1956.]

They won every world championship and stuff like that. When they played against the NHL superstars, it was pretty much almost even. The Soviets had a slight edge, but those were great series, against the Gretzkys and Lemieuxs and all that.

TV: What was the thinking within the Soviet Union about using sports as a way to promote a political philosophy?

GP: The players just wanted to be the best in the world. But everything in the Soviet Union was political in certain ways. You had to get everything approved by the party. Sports was specifically funded by the government, and the Red Army team [the name for the hockey team], and the program. If you wanted to be the best player in the world, you had to play on the national team. That's just how it was. And if you're on the national team, you're indirectly spreading the ideas of Communism.

I don't think the players were always aware of that or that's what they wanted, but if you lived there, that's what you had to do if you wanted to be the best. By default, they were unwilling participants in this political conflict.

TV: What did these guys find when they came to the Western world, and what were the drawbacks of coming here?

GP: It's like living one way and knowing one thing and seeing only one thing because of the Iron Curtain and going to a completely opposite society and system. They're human beings, like all of us, but they grew up in a world that was so different, and they had to adjust, both from a professional standpoint and also culturally.

A simple example is the produce in stores. All of a sudden, they can buy any kind of fruit they want. You can get any kind of car they want. All these material things were eye-opening. But culturally, it's just a different culture, different values, different ways of behaving. It's an adjustment. It was very, very difficult.

And at that time, I don't think anyone wanted them there. It was the aftermath of the Cold War. They were discriminated against a little bit.

TV: The film really digs into the prejudices against Communists at that time.

GP: This is a common immigrant experience, only they were sort of the sworn enemies.

TV: Their training took them away from their families for 11 months. What did you find out about that that you were surprised by?

GP: These guys were 40 years ahead of everybody. They were doing ingenious training and team bonding, carrying each other on their backs. A lot of plyometric jumping and somersaulting, and all of these unique training systems.

They were throwing rocks around. They were swimming, playing soccer. It was like a holistic approach to the sport. It was developing the body and putting it in situations to make their mental faculties stronger. To the Western eye, it seems so unorthodox and strange, but if you look at what they were doing, it was incredibly innovative.

TV: There's some conflict in the movie between the players and their new coach, Viktor Tikhonov, but he certainly didn't hurt their success. Did the players underestimate his ability, or were they just so good he was along for the ride?

GP: The latter, I think.

If he was worthy of their respect, they would have given it to him. I don't think he was a particularly creative guy, but one thing he did do is put this Russian five together and let them play. And that was one of the greatest five-man units ever, so clearly, he saw the talent and put them out there. That's more than most coaches can say.

TV: What do you think is the modern state of Russian hockey?

GP: They develop individuals, and everybody tries to go into the NHL. It's about me, me, me, and how big of a star can I be. Their goal is to play in the NHL and make the most money and all that. That's what it's turned into.

There's no more state-run development where they select kids and develop them as a team to be dominant collectively. For these international events, they get them back together, but there's not the same kind of chemistry because they don't spend a lot of time together.

TV: I had heard you were coming back from Russia once, and you ended up on the same plane as Vladimir Putin. How did that happen?

GP: I arrived in Moscow to interview Fetisov for the last time. When I arrived, I called him and said, "I'm here. I'm ready to go." He basically said he couldn't do the interview. I got very upset and said, "I flew all the way out here. I've got crew. You can't just say you can't do the interview."

He said, "Oh, well, Putin asked me to go to Sochi, because there's this presentation I've gotta be at with him." So I said, "Can I come?" He sort of paused and then said, "Meet me there."

We ended up doing the interview, and I had no way of getting home, because nothing was planned. So I said, "How are you getting home?" He said, "I'm going on the presidential plane," and I said, "Well, can I come?"

He, again, thought I was kind of crazy, and he got on the phone. I don't know who he talked to, but he got off the phone and said, "You're going to come with me on the presidential plane."

Before we got on the plane, he said, "Don't look at anybody. Don't talk to anyone. Just go straight to the back of the plane and don't say a word."

They were doing some sort of hockey thing out in Sochi, and all the Soviet hockey legends were on that plane, every single one of them that are still living. It was incredible. Those guys are the best players in the world.