‘Red Penguins’: Film Review | TIFF 2019

‘Red Army’ filmmaker Gabe Polsky returns with ‘Red Penguins,’ a follow-up on the Russian ice hockey team during a tumultuous partnership with the NHL’s Pittsburg Penguins in the early 1990s.

After entertainingly unpacking the origin story of the world’s most successful ice hockey team with a focus on their astonishing accomplishments of the 1980s, Red Army documentary filmmaker Gabe Polsky revisits the history of the legendary Russian squad and finds their status distinctly diminished by the early 1990s. This time pursuing pro sports executives as his primary sources, Polsky crafts an engaging, in-depth examination of the intersection of politics and hockey as Russia struggles to gain its balance following the demise of the Soviet Union.  

Red Army built much of its irresistible momentum by playing off the personalities of the Russian national team members, particularly a series of irreverent interviews with celebrated defenseman and former captain Slava Fetisov. More of a sociological inquiry wrapped in a sports dynasty chronicle, Red Penguins takes a tack that’s more reflective and less adulatory, sacrificing some of the vitality of its predecessor in the process. Even if not all of Red Army’s fans feel compelled to revisit the later exploits of one of Europe’s most distinctive hockey franchises, Toronto makes the perfect venue to attract new adherents, who will no doubt find much to admire in this film as well.

The Bottom Line

Another incisive insider take on the wild world of Russian hockey.

Polsky begins his account with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which reestablishes the independence of Russia, but catches many citizens unprepared for the onset of democracy and the competitive climate of a market economy. Without the central government’s robust sponsorship, even the legendary Red Army hockey team teeters on the brink of collapse as all of the best players relocate to North America and join the National Hockey League.

Longtime coach Viktor Tikhonov, the iron-willed architect of two gold-medal-winning Olympic teams, and the Red Army’s general manager Valery Gushin soon hit on the idea of partnering with a successful NHL franchise to help bail them out. Since team ownership routinely changes in U.S. sports, it may be hard to imagine how momentous a capitulation it was for representatives of the world’s greatest hockey institution to arrive on the doorstep of their archrivals, hat in hand looking for a handout.

Recognizing an unprecedented business opportunity, Howard Baldwin and Tom Ruta, co-owners of the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, and a group of investors (including Canadian-American actor-producer Michael J. Fox) agree to take a 50 percent stake in the Red Army club. Ruta and Baldwin realize that the team will need a complete makeover to be able to credibly compete again on the world stage, so they hire sports marketing whiz Steven Warshaw to represent their interests in Moscow.

During often amusing in-depth exchanges, with Polsky frequently guiding the questioning, Warshaw describes himself as “not a traditional thinker” and emphasizes the unconventional promotional skills that got him posted to one of the least desirable world capitals at a time of extreme political and economic uncertainty. “He just seemed like the perfect guy to send on an adventure like this,” Baldwin wryly recalls. Admirably sourced and staged, Polsky’s interviews consider all of the key players from the American side, as well as Gushin and an array of the venture’s Russian colleagues, some of whom view Warshaw and his unusual promotional tactics as totally crazy for the time.

Settling in at the Moscow army base where the team (now renamed the Russian Penguins) makes its headquarters, Warshaw attempts to entice fans back to home ice, but once the Penguins’ refurbished arena reopens for the revitalized squad’s 1993 debut, the venue remains nearly half-empty. So Warshaw falls back on his reputation as a guerilla-marketing guru and begins bringing on sponsors and offering fans incentives to attend games in an effort to build the team’s brand.

U.S. corporations eager to crack the Russian market sign deals to affix their logos to uniforms, splash their names across the arena and literally give away their products. Fans compete for major prizes, guzzle free American beer and enjoy the spectacle of skating cheerleaders (recruited from a surprising source) during game breaks. The most improbable sponsorship initiative involves a prolonged courtship with Disney after former CEO Michael Eisner approaches the owners with a plan to tie in the team brand with the American studio. According to Warshaw, the deal never closed, in part because local gangsters begin pressuring the team for a slice of the action as the Penguins’ popularity takes off, forcing Warshaw to devise an exit plan.

Polsky digs deep to unearth often amusing archival clips and photos of Warshaw at work with the Penguins, but finds less to share on the somewhat enigmatic Tikhonov, who was similarly underrepresented in Red Army. Newscasts, Russian talk shows and street scenes of Moscow roiled by the implosion of the economy and the onslaught of invading multinational brands provide cultural context for the period.

Editor Christina Stiles enticingly integrates these elements to achieve a fluid sense of pacing that’s careful not to get too far ahead of the sometimes complex narrative. Footage of the Russian Penguins in action is noticeably scarce, however, which may prove a sore point for some hockey enthusiasts eager to learn more about this unique period in Russian sports, which concluded the Penguins’ brief flirtation with entrepreneurial capitalism.

Production companies: Gabriel Polsky Productions, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Studio Hamburg Enterprises
Director-writer-producer: Gabe Polsky
Executive producers: Thore Vollert, Eric Friedler, Scott Kaplan
Director of photography: Aleksey Elagin
Editor: Christina Stiles
Music: Leo Birenberg

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Sales: Cinetic Media

80 minutes