For a brief period in the 90s, the Central Red Army Hockey Club—one of the most storied teams in history—played above a strip club.
Russia, post-Iron Curtain, was going through an extraordinary amount of change, so it makes sense the bizarre would creep into sports. This is a period Red Penguins, a documentary that debuted at TIFF this year explores. In the film, American director Gabe Polsky unpacks the incredibly weird tale of how the executives for the Pittsburgh Penguins sent an American overseas to attempt to resurrect the Red Army team, which has been crippled by the dissolving of the Soviet Union. This resurrection effort would involve turning the basement strippers into on-ice cheerleaders (who stripped), hiring circus bears to serve beer, and going head to head with the Communists who ran the team for years.
While at first the experiment resoundingly succeeds—I mean, who doesn’t want to get a beer from a grizzly and then watch some hockey—it soon collapses under the weight of opposing cultures, egos, and some good ol’ fashioned Russian gangsters.
Now, this isn’t the first time Polsky has put his lens on the Red Army team. In 2014 he directed the critically-acclaimed documentary Red Army which focuses on the players who defected from the international powerhouse to the NHL. So to learn more about this intersection of sports and politics, VICE called up Polsky to chat about the failed experiment, communist coaches, beer serving bears, and stripping cheerleaders.
VICE: What sparked your interest in Russian hockey around the time of the fall of the Iron Curtain?
Polsky: First of all, the period is like one of the most dramatic in history. They went from extreme authoritarianism to, you know, almost complete chaos. No law enforcement… the laws were still being rewritten. So it's completely insane and it's so dramatic. The country was trying to figure out what it was going to do, what was the system going to be, how it was going to transition? It's just one of the most fascinating moments in history. It was just like such a difficult time as well as a country economically and socially.
It was even hard to know how to think. How can you go from one ideology to another overnight? A lot of people struggled, especially the older generation. You go from really no individual initiative and creativity where you're not supposed to stand out and then all of a sudden that's what it's all about—every man for himself. It's just so bizarre. The Red Army team showed the struggle. One year after the Cold War ended they went from being one of the greatest teams in history to all of a sudden a complete disaster and almost extinct.
That kind of push and pull between competing ideological forces play out in your film pitting this kind of like traditionalist communist mindset against a Western hockey executive. It works to explore how capitalism was invading at the time.
Yeah, those guys were like real communists, Viktor Tikhonov (the legendary coach of the Red Army) was basically a KGB guy. Then, all of a sudden, the enemy comes to town to save him and introduces all these capitalist marketing and business ideas. I mean, it's just, I couldn't imagine how his head was spinning and how humiliating it was for him. Not to mention that the hockey itself was terrible. He went from being one of the greatest coaches in history to having no good players. He just looked like an idiot. And then on top of that, you have an American saving them with all these shenanigans. The building is full, ironically, for the first time, but they’re there to watch shitty hockey.
When I think of Russian hockey, especially at that time, I think of stoic men more or less living in cabins in the woods who drink and eat hockey and only hockey. But in this film, you show off the debauchery going on.
I think that the players and the fans were just so open to change, and so tired of being kind of everything repressed. Everybody was just excited about that change. The only people that weren't excited were the people that were in power. You know, everybody else wanted this to come, they wanted to be free, to do what they want to do. That's why people came. It was one of the biggest shows and Russia. They had fun, they got drunk, they danced. It's almost like a rave, you know? There was a collection of people there, from military people to young people, just there to have fun. It didn't matter that the hockey was terrible.
Their marketing strategy was a bit all over the place, eh?
It was like anything goes. Whatever can get a rise out of people and get people to the rink. There are no rules. Think of like the NHL, but like, if you're allowed to do anything you want, so they tried everything. Imagine if you're a marketing guy, and you have no limits on what you can do. So there's a perfect place for the Penguins at the time in a sense, you know, and they basically, were allowed to do anything. There was a strip club in the basement of the rink so they just used the strippers as cheerleaders and sort of strip on the ice at half time there.
You weren't making a movie solely about the insanity that took place during the high period of this American invasion of the Red Army hockey team so you couldn’t show it all but was there anything nuts, like to the level of beer serving bears or strippers on the ice, you didn’t include?
One crazy thing that this didn't make the movie is when the Americans were leaving the army basically got into a huge fight over control of the team. The team had to hire what were essentially special forces to fight with the military. And there was this standoff where the military had foot soldiers around the perimeter of the rink. So the forces hired by the team came in and started basically fighting with the military, over control of this team. Nobody knew who was actually in control, you know, because laws were so grey—it’s a good metaphor for the country at the time.
How difficult was it to get people to talk to you for this?
It wasn't easy. I went out went there on a whim. I didn't have anything lined up. I was just hoping that I and my colleague can kind of get people. I would wake up every morning not knowing who we would get but I didn't want to leave there until I had had enough. I thought that it was going to be a total disaster but we kind of got one by one. We just basically rented a van and were driving around Moscow from one interview to the next and they just got crazier and crazier.
We ended up getting this guy that was not Interpol's ten most wanted. It was very weird. I went to the restaurant we were meeting and he’s the only one there. And so we had the whole restaurant to ourselves. It was pretty interesting a little intimidating, you know, but the guy turns out to be incredibly nice and open to us. And we interviewed a former military general. The guy’s now a principal at a school and when we got there he was giving out these student awards. We went back to his office and he goes and puts on his military uniform for the interview. It was a lot of fun and very strange but he did it almost like there wasn't any sense of humour—he just did it.
In the film, it's a little hard to know who to trust and that seems to be kind of like one of the underlying themes. How did you handle that as a filmmaker and a journalist?
I think you just kind of lean on it, you know? Make it part of the story. I think you're definitely right, that's the fundamental issue in the story, the lack of trust.
Are you planning on kind of revisiting the intersection of sports and politics again?
(Laughs) I said after Red Army that I'll never do anything on Russia hockey again. Like, don't even come near me with it… then I did Red Penguins. Even as I was doing it, I was like, ‘Why the fuck am I going back? Why am I doing this.’ I definitely want to do some new things and I’m focusing on that, but who knows.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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