When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 on the day after Christmas, American speculators were presented with the ultimate gift: An opportunity to sell capitalism to one of the largest untapped markets in the history of time. For Russians, however, the shift away from communism was hesitant and fraught with uncertainty, and some of the country’s proudest institutions began to languish without the state-funded support that had allowed them to thrive behind the Iron Curtain. Business relations between the two superpowers were tantalizing in theory, but difficult to make real, and the ice was slower to thaw than many people on either side might have hoped. Of course, that wasn’t a problem for anyone who knew how to skate.
An amusing sequel of sorts to his 2014 documentary “Red Army,” Gabe Polsky‘s slight but insightful “Red Penguins” tells the wild story of what happened when the greatest hockey team in the history of the universe found itself on the brink of extinction, and some of the most visionary and/or foolish executives of the American sports arena tried to swoop in and save it. More than a cock-eyed peek back at an unprecedented culture clash, the film provides a bittersweet glimpse at a small, stained-glass window of time when anything seemed possible, and the concept of change was rich with promise.
Eighty minutes isn’t long enough to capture the full scope of what happened when oligarchs rose to power and Russia began to mutate faster than its legal system could keep up, and Polsky’s film — which leans on a few crucial talking heads rather than reaching for a broader spectrum of voices — often feels like it’s playing shorthanded. Nevertheless, the entertaining historical footnote that “Red Penguins” exhumes is wacky enough to earn this new oxygen, and Polsky’s narrow focus allows this tale of entrepreneurial folly to resolve as a pinhole inside the world’s greatest power struggle.
If “Red Army” was about the rise and fall of its eponymous hockey club — the Soviet national team — then “Red Penguins” is about what happens after that juggernaut started to disintegrate. The team had been left to rot during the early days of the Yeltsin era, and most of its now-liberated superstar players had left the country in order to play for the National Hockey League. The “Ice Palace” where the Red Army played had become a total dump; a home to illegal squatters and all sorts of even less savory business. That’s when hockey visionary Howard Baldwin (yes, the same Howard Baldwin who founded the Hartford Whalers when he was only 28 years old and later went on to produce the Jean-Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death”), had a bright idea.
Well, it was an idea, anyway. Baldwin, then the owner of the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, decided that he would buy a 50% stake in the Red Army team, and restore it to glory. Best-case scenario, he would rip open the planet’s ripest hockey market; worst-case scenario, he would have first dibs at an entire generation of Russian talent. With a little help from celebrity investors like Mario Lemieux and Michael J. Fox (whose memories would have been a huge asset to this movie), the deal was done. Of course, in a country that was just experiencing its first blush of “gangster capitalism” — and at a time when the introduction of personal wealth had turned Moscow into the murder capital of Europe — nobody owned more of something than the mafia allowed them to keep.
Steven Warshaw, the marketing guru who Howard sent over to Russia to run things on the ground, learned that lesson the hard way. An eccentric character with a whatever-it-takes attitude that jived with the Red Army’s approach to hockey, Warshaw is the heart and soul of Polsky’s film. Listening to him reflect on all the craziness he survived over there, it sounds like someone reminiscing about his glory days. Almost. There’s a serrated edge of trauma to his stories, and it only grows sharper as “Red Penguins” goes on.
But, like “Red Army,” this is a documentary that’s easier to love when it’s keeping things light, and the first half of “Red Penguins” — in which Warshaw outruns every other American businessman and almost single-handedly tries to tame “the Wild East” — is a delight. The fun starts as soon as he lands in the Moscow airport, which was filled with a stench that Warshaw describes as “the ass of death,” and it ramps up when he shows up to an empty arena and takes stock of the situation. Polsky mines a treasure trove of archival material to bring the various accounts back to life, and it often seems as if he only interviewed people he could match back to the old footage. After Warshaw, the most entertaining testimonies come from the hugely eccentric guy who worked as the Red Penguins’ mascot, and would often fall to the ice on purpose so that he could rip off the head of his costume and earn his own measure of celebrity, and Polsky has the clips to prove it.
But Warshaw soon realized that he would have to resort to more drastic measures in order to put butts in the seats. That would explain how the Ice Palace wound up with a strip club in the basement, although Warshaw — ever the opportunist — got more bang for his buck by asking the strippers to dance for the fans between periods, when no-nonsense coach Viktor Tikhonov wasn’t able to see. And then, obviously, there were the live bears that served beer to each other on the ice during intermission. Only one player got permanently maimed! The Red Penguins may not have been as good as the Olympic-destroying team from which they’d been salvaged, but as someone puts it in the film: “It wasn’t hockey, it was happiness.” The people loved it, and the Ice Palace was home to new glory.
Alas, the most dangerous thing you could do in mid-’90s Russia was to make a little bit of money, and once word got around that Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanted to invest in some kind of proto-Mighty Ducks marketing arrangement, things went south. It’s here that “Red Penguins” grows a bit murky, as vague statements about the potential of a USA-Russia collaboration are swamped by even more vague stories of shadowy figures and terrible violence. It doesn’t help that Polsky leans so hard on the testimony of Red Penguins GM Valery Gushin, who was infamous for his heavy drinking. Hiding behind the kind of hearty laugh that can disguise all manner of horrors, Gushin is a charismatic screen presence, but his tendency to laugh off literally everything as “the way things were” can get in the way of a compelling story.
Polsky digs into the odd couple dynamic between Warshaw and Gushin, often using it as a microcosm for the potentials and pitfalls of US-Russian relations, but he fails to pierce through the surface and get a deeper sense of how they related to one another. The movie ends with Polsky asking if they’d be friends outside of hockey, and the lack of a clear answer is made all the more frustrating by the fact that the director had access to both men, but didn’t manage to have them speak to each other (either literally or figuratively, though the former would be valuable in a modern context).
Polsky is more confident when it comes to exploring the playful aspects of Russian hockey, and his unwillingness to explicitly unpack the implications of this story tends to dilute the film’s dramatic questions. Putin appears, but only so that he can cast his shadow. And while this critic, a lifelong New York Rangers obsessive, has a natural interest in this material, hockey neophytes might not always find a reason to care. Still, “Red Penguins” is deft and rewarding enough to hope that Polsky embraces his clear position as the sport’s most preeminent filmmaker (even if that’s a very low bar to clear), and presses on to tell the next chapter in this story. A more current documentary about the KHL, perhaps?
“Red Penguins” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.