My latest column for the Chicago Tribune is on a new film by Chicago-area native Gabe Polsky, who tells the complete story of the great Soviet hockey team.
The film, which opens in theaters this week, is terrific. Highly recommended.
From the column:
Naturally, Gabe Polsky remembers all three goals he scored during his college hockey days at Yale. He also has vivid memories of what happened after he bagged two goals in the opener of his sophomore season.
“I wasn’t in the lineup for the next game,” Polsky said. “Welcome to college hockey.”
While the Glencoe native’s aspirations of a pro hockey career soon vanished, his sense of unfinished business with the game never dissipated. Polsky, 35, believes he finally has filled the void with the famed Soviet Union hockey team.
Polsky’s new documentary, “Red Army,” tells the sports, political and cultural tale of hockey’s greatest team. The film has received much critical acclaim and even earned a showing at the Cannes Film Festival, a rarity for a sports documentary, Polsky said.
“I never could contribute to hockey the way I knew I could,” Polsky said. “It always stuck with me. (This film) is my contribution to the game.”
It is a story worth telling, as the Soviets dominated international hockey for decades until the fall of the USSR in 1991. They did it with a mesmerizing game that featured players weaving around confused opponents, intricate passing and unparalleled teamwork. The film details the artistry conceived by legendary coach Anatoly Tarasov, who choreographed a hockey ballet on ice.
“When I saw a tape of the Soviets for the first time (at 15), it was like a religious experience,” Polsky said. “It was like living in a world where all you saw were Honda Civics. Then all of a sudden, a Ferrari drives down the road and you go, ‘Oh, my God.’ This was a creative revolution not just for hockey, but for sports.”
The teams were the byproduct of a Soviet system that sought to use sports to show the superiority of its society. The players were pushed to extremes under dictatorial regimes. They could see their families only one month of the year, as they were subjected to brutal training programs during the remaining 11 months.
Somehow, though, the players managed to thrive. Polsky calls the end result “a deep paradox.”
“It says something that under the most brutally oppressive conditions came the freest hockey ever produced,” Polsky said. “They didn’t experience freedom off the ice, so they had to experience it on the ice.”