It's fitting that "Red Army," a compulsively watchable documentary about the Soviet hockey team's storied history, has opened in Minnesota this weekend, nearly 35 years since the "Miracle on Ice" of Feb. 22, 1980.
My uncle, Rob McClanahan, was a forward for the U.S. team that beat the Soviets that day in Lake Placid, N.Y., one of nine Minnesotans selected by late coach Herb Brooks. I was always fascinated by this history. (Holding an Olympic gold medal in your hands will do that to an impressionable, hockey-obsessed kid.)
The legend of this almighty Russian squad was a regular part of our conversations. The players were poets on skates, with a style of play so fluid, gorgeously creative and tough to defend it was no wonder they scared opponents.
"The way they moved the puck, it was unbelievable," Uncle Rob told me by phone recently after seeing "Red Army."
He liked the film, and thought it was cool to get a different perspective and learn things about his former opponents that he never knew.
"I even have about a 5-second part in the movie," he said, referring to a clip from the "Miracle on Ice" game. "I wanted nothing to do with that puck. I didn't want to screw it up."
"Red Army" proves that the Soviet team was not made up of bad guys, as Cold War propaganda and misplaced jingoism led some to believe. They were just people who happened to be really good at hockey. The film's greatest and most enjoyable feat is how it creates empathy for the enemy, in a sense.
"I found it interesting that all the guys interviewed still have huge national pride in spite of the fact they were treated unfairly," McClanahan added. "But they were very sad at the time."
Zeroing in on key players, director Gabe Polsky manages to compact the team's history, dominance, eventual dissolution and recent reputation into a lean 76 minutes. Top billing goes to defenseman Viacheslav "Slava" Fetisov, a droll and charismatic interview subject who became one of the first Russians to play in the NHL, with the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings.
McClanahan views Fetisov as one of the all-time greats: "When we played them in Lake Placid, he was a legend already. But he was my age. It was his first Olympics. I thought he'd played long before that."
The "Miracle on Ice" remains a great source of ire and shame to the Russian players, who made up perhaps the greatest hockey team ever to play the game. Although it plays only a small part in the documentary, the 4-3 loss clearly still stings.
But as McClanahan put it: "We play that game 100 times, we lose 99 of them."
In fact, only a few weeks before, the U.S. team was trounced by the Soviets 10-3 at Madison Square Garden. "I went up before the center faceoff, and I looked at [teammate] Mark Johnson and I said, 'What the hell are we doing here?' It was as if a high school team played the Minnesota Wild. That's how good they were."
The film also pays homage to the great influence the Soviets had on the sport, from training methods to a more creative style of play — both of which Herb Brooks adopted for his 1980 U.S. team.
"We were basically his guinea pigs," McClanahan said, laughing. "Their training methods were ahead of their time."
This included a drill known by a subsequent generation of Minnesota hockey kids as "Herbies" — skating as hard as you could, back and forth, stopping and starting, to the point where your legs turned to rubber, and then beyond. The thing is, as "Red Army" makes clear, we should've called them "Russkies."
Erik McClanahan is a Minnesota-born film critic (and ex-high school hockey player) who lives in Portland, Ore.