Any child of the 1980s and any sports fan can tell you the story of the “Miracle on Ice.”

The ragtag band of rookie hockey players brought together by the United States for the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics pulled off the upset of the century — defeating the Soviet Union in the semifinals. It’s a game that has become legendary, but the new documentary “Red Army,” premiering in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 6, 2015, tells the story of the team on the other side of the “Miracle” — the Soviet Red Army team — and their relationships with their teammates, their families and the government that trained them from childhood to carry the hopes of the nation.

What sounds at first like a basic sports documentary becomes much more than that under the direction of former Yale hockey player Gabe Polsky, who set out to create a much more holistic look at life in the Soviet Union.

“I knew going into it that I wanted it somehow to tell the story of the Soviet Union, the people, the history and the rise and fall of this empire using hockey as a window into this story,” Polsky said. “I wanted it to be a film; not like an ESPN 30 for 30.”

Seen through the eyes of Red Army team captain Slava Fetisov — the current Russian minister of sport and the mastermind behind the Sochi Olympics — and his teammates, the intense pressures handed down by the Soviet government, its people and the especially ruthless coach Viktor Tikhonov become abundantly clear; the players practiced three times a day, every day, for eleven months of the year, separated from their families, friends and loved ones.

“The [Soviet] system kind of valued sports because they felt that sports could spread the Soviet ideology— and chess and ballet — around the world because people see that and are like, ‘Wow, look how good they are, they must be doing something.’” Polsky says.

“These guys were officers in the Red Army and the greatest athletes of all time. They were literally drafted into the Army and then trained. They were Cold Warriors. They were just playing because they wanted to be the best and looked up to in their country as heroes.”

Under the ruthless leadership of Tikhonov, the five-man starting team became a kind of family — a family that happened to be the most well-oiled hockey-playing machine the world had ever seen. One of the best parts of the film is the extensive archival footage uncovered by Polsky and his researchers in obscure corners of the former Soviet media archives. Even viewers who have never watched a game of hockey in their lives will appreciate the Red Army team’s fluid skills on the ice that almost need to be seen to be believed.

“It was like creative expression, in my opinion, basically one of the greatest creative achievements in sports and for some reason it was lost in history because it was overshadowed by the ‘Miracle on Ice.’” Polsky said. “They were described as robots … but what they did on the ice? They were like artists. Maybe they looked like robots but they didn’t play like robots.”

Telling this story is especially important for Polsky, whose parents immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union.

“Having Russian parents who grew up there, I get it — who these people are. I also understand why they are the way they are… why they’re tough and dark and negative but at the same time funny and positive. … This film really puts a face on Russia and the Russian experience and who these people are, their experience, the leaders. This is where they grew up; this is about the Russian soul.”

The Soviet Red Army hockey team was one of the most successful athletic endeavors of the 20th century. While players from countries of the former Soviet Union continue to flood to the National Hockey League, it is highly likely that we will never see another team like the Red Army again. Polsky says it best: “It only helps sport to study that kind of achievement.”

 

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