By Jason Keidel

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It’s a typical, condescending presupposition that intellectuals make: sports fans are little more than failed jocks who dwell in the double-digit-IQ cauldron. It’s impossible to love baseball and books at once, to adore tennis and Tolstoy, football and Faulkner.

So while the highbrow crowd has hailed Red Army as a sports film for the non-sports fan, CBS has chosen the quintessential, carnivore sports junkie to write about it.

Red Army is a complex treatise on the rigors of Red Russia hockey and the impossibly beautiful game it produced, the paradox of a stone-fisted government giving birth to a free-flowing sports organism.  

Our premise of victory is liberty, an adjunct of the American Dream, that with freedom comes freedom of expression, which spawns the sublime fruit of artistic expression.

But lost in the ideals of wheat fields and sand between your toes is the bedrock reality that discipline is just as important as ability, that talent and toughness are equally essential. Simply, you can’t just tell a bunch of gifted athletes to “have fun” and expect a symphony of fast breaks and goals scored.

Such is the irony of Red Army, which frames the suffocating life of the “amateur” hockey player in the old Soviet Union, where lives are literally tethered to a sport, which was really a job, which was really a way of life. Unlike in America, where you can tell your boss, coach, or GM to take a hike, playing under the weight of the communist anvil isn’t such a simple endeavor.

The movie revolves around Vyacheslav Fetisov – the captain, leader, and soul of the squad. While you’ll find the perfunctory highlights and archived evidence of Russia’s hockey acumen, the film is wonderfully spliced by sidebars between Fetisov (whose nickname is “Slava”) and director Gabe Polsky, who interviews Slava throughout the movie.

Their humorously hostile dialogue – usually instigated by Slava, who is often glaring into his cell phone and clearly irritated by the disruption of actual questions – is a welcome tangent from the stark and dark conditions under which the wildly successful hockey team performed.

And though the Miracle on Ice gave us an endless IV drip of patriotism, the truth is the Soviet team didn’t lose another hockey game for years and would have thrashed any American team 99 out of 100 times. No doubt 1980 made for fantastic, cinematic romance, but it was not a referendum on global hockey dominance.

@2014 Polsky Films. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

I spent an hour with Polsky and Fetisov after a screening at Lincoln Center, which makes for lively (and sometimes profane) banter. Their on-screen tête-à-tête was not an act. they seem to serve as the other’s foil, which translates delightfully in the film.

JK: When did you become obsessed with the superior style of Russian hockey, the contrast between their play and what you saw in North America?

Polsky: “I always felt like sports was a creative expression. I never felt that North Americans approached hockey that way. I knew it instantly when I saw the Soviets play, that this was profound. It was more than hockey. It was an art form.

But when I started making the film, I didn’t want to just make a hockey or sports film. I wanted to make something universal, that touches a lot of different kinds of people. To make magic on the screen.”

JK: How long did it take to make the film?

Polsky: “Two years.”

JK: The most daunting part?

Polsky: “Post-production. Editing. I didn’t exactly know how the story would be told. I didn’t even know Slava would be the main character until I started interviewing him. Then I began to focus on Slava and use him as a window into a large story. He’s probably the most decorated athlete in history of Russian hockey. He’s a compelling character who went through a lot of obstacles and achieved a tremendous amount at a high price.

The viewer is forced to see the story through my eyes. At first he’s difficult to get through. And that’s how a lot of Americans see Russians, don’t see Russians for what they really are. They think Russians are rough, more difficult people. But that’s because they’ve had such a rough life and history. It takes a while to get through to Slava, but in the end you see he’s a deep character.”

@2014 Polsky Films. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

Slava, true to form, was buried in his cell phone when he lifted his brooding face toward me. “May I ask you a question, Slava?”

“Of course,” he said, sternly.

If Fetisov sounds familiar to the Tri-State crowd, that’s because he played for the New Jersey Devils. Drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 1978, he was unable to play because of the rigid restrictions on Soviet players migrating to the United States. He reentered the NHL Draft in 1983 and was picked by the Devils.

“It’s very difficult to make a good team from bad players,” he said. “First you have to find a leader. then spread the roles around.”

He paused, thinking of the words that must have come so easily to his native tongue. “It’s a building process,” he added. “I came from the best team in the world to the worst team in the National Hockey League. For me it was not easy. I don’t speak English very well. But even if you don’t speak the same language you can tell if someone doesn’t like you. Especially if you were once the captain of the Soviet national team.”

And that was the axis of his struggle to reach the American/Canadian player – the three-pronged handicap of being of Soviet Soil, Russian tongue, and culturally awkward. His odd syntax and obdurate mien make Slava something of a stereotype at first. His facade is a walking, Rocky IV punchline, his accent makes Ivan Drago sound like Tony Robbins. He is, of course, anything but a stubborn Soviet expat who gulps Vodka and grunts his way to hockey fame.

JK: How do you convince a 28-year-old who knows nothing of your accomplishments to try things your way? It’s not like you have five Stanley Cups in your bureau.

Slava: “I have to convince him that my style will make his life better than what he has now. It’s a psychological process. I’ve been training since I was 16, so playing anywhere was easy for me, especially when you consider the physical and political pressure I was under my whole life. It’s a situation I had to fight through. They didn’t let me come to America until I was 31.”

JK: You were punished for publicly yearning to play in the U.S.

Slava: “They didn’t let me train for a year and a half.”

Polsky: “The way they were playing in the Soviet Union, the beautiful style, that takes years and years of getting to know your teammates and understanding. You can’t just go into another system and expect them to do that, or come close to that. The extra pass, finding the open guy, trusting each other, not even close, until he got to Detroit.”

@2014 Polsky Films. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

Fetisov and Polsky refer to Russian hockey in the reverent terms reserved for Brazilian soccer. The Beautiful Game.

Fetisov’s bio reads like the left breast of a wartime General. Two Olympic gold medals (1984, 1988). Seven gold medals at the World Championships (between 1978 and 1990). Fetisov is one of only four players to win the “Grand Slam of Hockey,” winning the Stanley Cup, World Ice Hockey championship, Olympic gold medal, World Ice Hockey junior championship, and Canada/World Cup Championship.

He played for the Devils from 1989 until he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings in April 1995. A few months later he lost to the Devils in the Stanley Cup Finals. He finally got Detroit to drink from Lord Stanley’s cup – twice – in 1997 and 1998, before announcing his retirement.

Though a defenseman, Fetisov was not allergic to scoring, amassing 14 points in the 14 games he played for Detroit at the end of the ’95 season. Twice he recorded 42 points in a single season (1989-90,1995-96). And Fetisov is largely credited for the flood of high-profile Russian players who soon followed him to America, which gave the sport an epic injection of talent and temerity.

Of course, America only remembers Lake Placid, which is like remembering Muhammad Ali strictly by his loss to Trevor Berbick.

@2014 Polsky Films. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

“It was my first,” Fetisov said of his 1980 nightmare. “I dreamed to play in the Olympics. I was 21 years old, and they put me in a (darn) prison.” Fetisov was referring to the rather limited quarters in Lake Placid. He used his hands to mimic the absurdly small dimensions of the room. “They had guards and barking dogs outside. Watchtowers. The atmosphere was terrible.”

Slava scowled at the recollection. “And, of course, we’re not supposed to lose to America,” he lamented. “But I guess (stuff) happens. That’s why they called it a miracle.” Then he looked at me, “The next three years we never lost a game.”

JK: Were you upset?

Slava: “Of course. I was pissed off. Everyone was. We were all upset. But it was a good learning experience. Never underestimate your opponent.”

Polsky: “The fact that you and everyone in the United States knows about the game. It speaks to the political situation more than the hockey. If this were the Super Bowl, it would be forgotten about a year later. It became this whole thing. We boycotted the Russians in ’80 and then they boycotted us in ’84. This is what motivated me to make this film. Their dominance was lost in history because of that one game.”

That cuts both ways, of course. Both Cold War nations saw athletic events as extensions of their political leanings, each game a ballot box on left or right-wing wares. Sports fans are used to hyperbole and projecting unwarranted qualities on large men in sneakers or skates.

JK: There’s a saying in baseball, nine players, nine taxis. Meaning players can be together on the field but hate each other away from it. Is a bond off the ice important?

Slava: “Depends. I think it’s important. When you live in the Soviet Union, training 11 months of the year, away from your families, it’s too much. When you get to America, you see they put teams in hotels, just to get a feeling for each other. It’s important. You can’t just come to the game. Leadership is important.”

Polsky interjected with his take on the game he fell in love with, which has been the thematic stitch that ran through his life and this film.

“What made me so excited every time I watched them touch the puck, which was about 70 percent of the time,” he said, “is they made something interesting happen, almost every time. Whereas if you watch the NHL today, you see an interesting play maybe once or twice per game. I don’t understand why we don’t see that kind of creativity in hockey today.”

Distilled, it’s the classic case of Me versus We. The point of Soviet/Russian hockey was the selfless coda of the extra pass, not just dumping the puck into play, bang each other around, and see what happens. There was a purpose to every movement in Slava’s game.

JK: What’s the state of hockey in Russia?

Slava: “Hockey is still the number one sport in Russia. We have enough money, enough infrastructure to develop players. Our problem is we can’t find anyone to run the hockey program in the right way. It’s a big, big problem.”

JK: Do you feel the NHL is a better game because of the influx of Russian hockey players and coaches?

Slava: “Tons better.”

And your day will be better for seeing this film. Even if – God forbid – you’re a sports fan.

Red Army opens in U.S. theaters on January 23, 2015.

***

Twitter: @JasonKeidel

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.

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