Movies | August 10, 2020 9:27 am

That Time Some Americans Bought an Iconic Russian Hockey Team and Failed Spectacularly

Even Gorbachev look-a-like contests, free beer and strippers couldn't save them

Red Penguins fans, 1991
Red Penguins fans, 1991
Red Penguins Doc LLC

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States sought to bring Western business practices to the Eastern bloc to foster positive economic development and peaceful international relations. What better way to wipe the slate clean than to reenergize a once great sports team? The Soviet national ice hockey team was widely considered to be the best in the history of the sport, but by the early ’90s, the team was in shambles after many of its star players defected to the NHL. In an effort to restore the team to its former glory, two co-owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins — Howard Baldwin and Thomas Ruta — and a couple celebrity investors (notably Michael J. Fox) bought a 50-percent share in the “Red Army” team. Baldwin and Ruta sent an eccentric marketing whiz kid, Steven Warshaw, to Moscow to run operations on the ground for the brand-new Red Penguins team.

When Warshaw landed in Russia, however, he quickly learned that he had to adopt an aggressive strategy in order to put butts in seats. Not only was the team terrible, but the “Ice Palace” where they played was in shambles. No one had any interest in paying money to see this Red Army team play in that stadium. So naturally, Warshaw decided to bring sideshow entertainment and promotional gimmicks to Russia. Strippers danced between periods. Free beer was given to attendees, sometimes served by live bears. There were Gorbachev look-a-like contests. A Red Penguins mascot who would purposefully take pratfalls so he could remove his mask to gain celebrity status. Prizes were frequently handed out to lucky winners and tchotchkes were given away for free. It was a free-for-all commercial venture that banked on its freak-show status to make a profit. At one point, even Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanted to invest some money into the team.

Red Penguins (Red Penguins Doc LLC)

This intriguing historical footnote makes up the new documentary Red Penguins, which recounts the story from its idealistic beginnings to its unceremonious end. It’s the fourth film directed by Gabe Polsky, a filmmaker whose work has frequently interrogated the relationship between sports — mainly hockey — and culture. Truth be told, Polsky is a man with many irons in the fire. For one thing, he runs a production company, Polsky Films, that owns the rights to several novels, including Daniel Keyes’s sci-fi novel Flowers for Algernon, which Polsky is currently trying to put together with comedian Pete Davidson in the starring role. But Polsky’s solo features (he co-directed his first film, The Motel Life, with his brother Alan) all return to the same pet themes: the development of athletic greatness and creativity, sports as a metaphor for national pride/ideology, and why the specter of Cold War-era politics still hangs over contemporary life.

All of these ideas can be traced back to Polsky’s childhood. Born to Soviet immigrants, Polsky grew up in Glencoe, Illinois, in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, where he developed his passion and talent for hockey at the Watts Center, which housed one of the few outdoor rinks in the area. “That’s where I learned to skate when I was like four years old,” Polsky explains to InsideHook over the phone from Los Angeles. “I just loved it. My brother started playing hockey, so I did whatever he did, and I fell in love with the game. I loved how fast it was. I had a little bit of ADD, and the game is always moving, always changing.”

For Polsky, a highly competitive and skilled player, the goal was to play Division I in college and then go pro. He accomplished the first part, playing for the Yale University team in the NCAA, but unfortunately hit a snag near the end of his senior year. “I had a coach there that was very defensive and not very creative,” he admits. “We kind of clashed a little bit. As a result, I didn’t get enough playing time to put up the numbers that you need to be in the NHL.”

After having sunk much of his life into the sport (“You’re probably spending about five or six hours a day with it, and I wasn’t having a whole lot of fun,” he admits), Polsky started to look around for other professional pursuits. His roommate at the time was involved in sketch comedy and improv, which made him believe that a creative life was a real possibility. Polsky proceeded to work in various facets of the film industry — as a PA, at a talent agency, working under various producers and financiers — before starting Polsky Films with his brother. The company’s first co-production was Werner Herzog’s acclaimed 2009 film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage.

In the aftermath of his NCAA experience, Polsky did his best to put hockey behind him. “After I finished playing, I was kind of heartbroken and I didn’t want anything to do with it for the rest of my life,” he said. “You just spend so much time in a rink, you know? I was kind of over it.” Yet Polsky couldn’t exactly let go of his roots, and when his father traveled to Moscow to celebrate the 50th birthday of Soviet Union goalie Vladislav Tretiak, Polsky decided to tag along. “He’s one of the greatest goaltenders ever. That actually got me thinking about the great team, the Soviet Union [national hockey team], and what it was all about. I quickly said [to my father], ‘Well, maybe I can go there with you and see if I can interview people basically.’ I guess if he wasn’t going there then, I maybe would have never decided to go after it.”

The material Polsky gathered on that trip would eventually become part of his documentary Red Army, which chronicled the history of the Soviet Union national hockey team via interviews and archival footage, with particular focus on the Russian Five, a unit of highly skilled players that would eventually play for the Detroit Red Wings after the fall of the USSR. Primarily recounted by defenseman and team captain Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, Red Army pulls back the Iron Curtain to shine a spotlight on how the team rose to power, the punishing conditions under which they trained, and their relationship with larger Soviet culture.

“We knew what they produced on the ice, but we didn’t really know what was happening behind the scenes,” Polsky argues. “That’s what I felt Red Army did, to allow people to understand the culture a little bit better, and what the history was, but through an entertaining story.”

Polsky’s love of the Soviet Union hockey team dates back to his childhood when he would watch VHS tapes of old series like the Summit Series or the Canada Cup. He fell in love with their style of play. “It was way more creative [than the U.S.], a lot more puck possession, and creative combinations, passing and playmaking, you know? The U.S. style, they call it individualistic, but I don’t even think the individuals were that creative or interesting or skilled. Occasionally, guys like [Wayne] Gretzky, [Mario] Lemieux, maybe [Steve] Yzerman, you see them deking and doing creative passing, but it’s like a needle in a haystack. In Russia, they’re taught to be creative, to find ways to make plays and not just dump it in.”

Incidentally, Red Army served as a neat counterpoint to the “Miracle on Ice” game, in which the United States famously upset the Soviet team in the 1980 Winter Olympics. The surrounding mythos of that game was further popularized by the 2003 Disney film Miracle, starring Kurt Russell as head coach Herb Brooks. Polsky, however, was mostly disinterested in this element of the story.

“It was just kind of a fluke to me,” shrugs Polsky. “It was amazing, but I was more interested in the Soviets’ style and that amazing dynasty. I understand it’s the classic underdog [story], just like Rocky or anything. But I’m always way less interested in the underdog that has a fluke than the [team with] consistently great performance. Like Rudy. Rudy sucks! It’s great he got to play one game, but I wouldn’t want to watch Rudy play football. I pay money to go see greatness.”

After Red Army, Polsky wasn’t exactly itching to make another movie about Russia or hockey. That didn’t stop Warshaw from coming to Polsky after one of the promotional screenings of Red Army to pitch his story about his time in Moscow. “I was kind of disgusted by the idea of it, just because I already done something [like it]. I didn’t know anything about it, but he was like, ‘Oh, I lived this crazy story, you won’t believe it …’ I didn’t really entertain it, but then he’d send me materials, and I eventually got to looking at it and was like, ‘Oh God. Somebody should do this.’”

The result is a film that plays like a companion piece to Red Army, focusing on the post-glasnost era of Russia and how such fertile ground for peaceful international relations ultimately evaporated because of an unbridgeable cultural divide. Strip away the eccentricities of Warshaw’s plan, and what remains is a story about the failures of exporting American capitalism to a country that had no experience with Western business practices. In Red Penguins, Polsky tracks how corruption, mafia tactics and outright violence eventually overtook a potentially lucrative commercial venture.

Boris and Bill show off their jerseys (Red Penguins Doc LLC)

Polsky argues that no one profiled in Red Penguins comes out clean. Warshaw and Baldwin were transparently trying to remake the Russian hockey team in their own image to make a quick buck and develop talent to bring to the NHL, and the Russians were going to siphon everything they could from the Americans while they were there. “It was a great opportunity because there was a blank slate,” says Polsky. “There could have been great relations. They were just coming to us for help, like, ‘We don’t know what to do. There’s no more communism. Can you help us figure things out?’ It just somehow got out of control.”

Polsky attributes some of this to a fundamental lack of trust on both sides, but also that the very idea of trying to “sell” a terrible team with the help of eye-catching sideshow acts was unfathomable to Russians, especially coming off of decades of athletic supremacy. “You got to understand,” he continues, “we Americans, we do this a lot where we market things that aren’t even necessarily good, just because we need to sell them. That’s just classic America. [The Russians] didn’t understand that. In hindsight, there was absolutely no chance that it would have ever worked. There was no chance the Russians would ever have allowed Americans or anyone to own this team. They would’ve just kicked them out eventually. It was too historic of a team. Too close to the heart.”

Though Warshaw is Red Penguins’ main subject, Polsky traveled to Moscow for a 10-day shoot in order to gather archival material and conduct interviews with notable figures, including Red Army General Manager Valery Gushin, former KGB prosecutor Vladimir Golubev, and “businessman” Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov, who’s rumored to be a member of the Russian mafia and is currently wanted by Interpol on charges of money laundering and fraud. At one point in Red Penguins, Polsky and his team realize they’re being followed and monitored by shadowy figures off-screen. “After a certain point,” he admits, “I was like, ‘Okay, I’m making sure that I’ve got everything I need before I leave here, because I may never come back.’”

Still, what’s compelling about Red Penguins is how much everyone, from American businessmen to Russian operatives, opens themselves up to Polsky, who’s frequently heard off camera asking follow-up questions or pressing his subjects for further details. Some of this is because of his reputation and Soviet roots, but it also speaks to his genial nature and natural ability to coax stories and reactions from everyone he meets. Polsky insists he doesn’t have a prescribed method or strategy to interviews, but credits his lack of self-seriousness and conversational instincts to getting people to speak to him about everything from light-hearted anecdotes to serious trauma.

Polsky remains humble about his efforts. “People are comfortable with me, whether that means. I’m definitely not trying to do anything other than connect with them and be interested in what they’re saying.”