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'Red Army' documentary uses hockey to provide window into Soviet history

01/29/2015 02:12 EST | Updated 03/31/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - It doesn't take long for audiences to figure out that "Red Army" is more than just a film about hockey.

Certainly, the documentary features plenty of footage of the Soviet Union's renowned national team scoring incredible goals, undergoing rigorous training and being hailed as a symbol of strength.

But there's also a glimpse into life behind the Iron Curtain, as experienced by men who are now key figures in present-day Russia.

"Sport is a creative expression and these guys really raised the bar," filmmaker Gabe Polsky said in an interview in Toronto.

"Although it was one of the most oppressive systems, the hockey was the most free and that's very paradoxical."

The documentary was a personal project for Polsky, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union. He grew up playing hockey and had one of the first Soviet coaches in the States.

An examination of the Soviet approach — tight collective work, the study of ballet movements, and many somersaults on the ice during practice — is among the highlights of the documentary, which explores the power of sport to affect politics.

The film is anchored by Viacheslav (Slava) Fetisov, a one-time captain of the Soviet hockey team and a hall of famer with two Olympic gold medals, several world championships and three Stanley Cups to his name.

Fetisov — who is now a politician in Russia — recalls being constantly watched by ominous state authorities until he eventually left the Soviet Union to play in the NHL. His stories are intermixed with interviews from former teammates, journalists and even a former KGB officer.

The differences between the Soviet team and the North American brand of hockey serve as a metaphor for the pitting of communism versus capitalism in the midst of the Cold War.

"I wanted to go way beyond hockey on many other levels," said Polsky.

"On the geopolitical level, on what's the meaning of sports to the Soviet Union, on the idea that they revolutionized sport and hockey and creativity."

Polsky hopes his documentary might provide some context on the Russian way of thinking at a time when relations are once again tense with North America.

"What my film does is get at the history of who these people are, their soul. They grew up in the Soviet Union, they had these experiences and they're running the country now," he said.

"There's a mentality that has carried over that this film can help illuminate to a degree. That's not going to solve anything, but maybe it will help people understand, a little bit, the face behind the curtain."

"Red Army" opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday and goes to theatres in cities across the country through the winter.

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