The ’90s have come to Moscow. As the Soviet Union is being dismantled, chaos reigns in the streets. Murder and crime erupt, as a nation comes to terms with what the future holds. Given the rapidly changing baseline of the country’s political climate, the doors are blasted wide open for radical outside enterprises to invest in the new Democracy. American investors line the pockets of the Red Army hockey team — who trade out their military grade CCCP sweaters for ones with adorable Penguins. It is the era of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Russia wants a taste.
The arenas were packed with KGB agents, strippers, and tenuous connections to Disney. Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner enters as a major player in the story. They made a clown show out of hockey, creating a spectacle that greatly overshadowed the on-ice talent. Red Penguins, Gabe Polsky’s direct follow-up to his excellent 2015 documentary Red Army (covering five standout players from the Soviet Union national team), picks up from the natural conclusion: the Russian national players have fled to the NHL. After America got a taste of the great rivalry inherent in American-Russian hockey, they realized its potential as a constant brand. The league identity greatly changed and the style of hockey played was forever altered. And yet it left Russia with a dearth of really great players. Their development systems remained world-class, but the end of the road was a flight to America.
And so Polsky extrapolates from his last work, detailing the next stage of hockey redevelopment. Inside the story of the Red Penguins, he finds a fascinating complex of personalities and crime stories. It utilizes the primary sources, each telling contrasting stories of the time they flooded the market with new ideas. Let’s call it, Democracy on Ice.
It’s another fine effort, a great interest for students of hockey history. Outside that orb of interest, it falters in captivating a regular audience. A bunch of talking heads, while spewing interesting stories, never reach any cohesion or agreement in what any of this means. We get a good sense for a moment of Russia’s development. What it felt like putting the team together. But the hockey stories themselves, also do not go anywhere. There is no human interest there. Largely involving the business dealings behind the scene, it does not exude exactly the same spirit of the game as Red Army, while also neither establishing a clean, new method to tell a different story. Where the last movie is one of the great sports stories, take Red Penguins as an aside to that picture, a special feature addendum at full length.
Polsky remains a great historian of the game. When the story is about hockey, he is greatly interested and engaged in the subjects. When the story wavers, it seems as though it loses its storytelling compass. All these matters are fine. For the diehard hockey historian, it is another crucial work. For anyone else, it’s a slight documentary about a time in Russia. It may not wholly please either audience. Polsky’s Red Army is in the pantheon of important hockey works. Ideally, the next step is to find another story with the same magnitude, or create something especially new, outside the sport.