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‘Red Army’ explores creativity on ice

“Red Army” (2014). Interview footage: Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, Alexei Kasatanov, Vladislav Tretiak, Vladimir Krutov, Vladimir Pozner, Scotty Bowman, Felix Nechepore, Lada Fetisov. Archive footage: Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, Viktor Tikhonov, Anatoli Tarasov, Mikhail Gorbachev, Leonid Brehznev, Vladimir Putin, Joseph Stalin, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Herb Brooks, Wayne Gretzky. Director: Gabe Polsky. Screenplay: Gabe Polsky. Web site. Trailer.

One never knows where one’s creative inspiration will come from. Sometimes the sources will seem obvious. But, at other times, it may arise from the unlikeliest of places. Such is the case with the engaging new sports documentary, “Red Army.”

For decades, the Soviet national hockey team dominated the sport in the world of international tournament play, including the Winter Olympics. Organized and operated under the auspices of the Red Army, the team was a virtually unstoppable juggernaut. But how did it come to be such a formidable powerhouse?

In the years after World War II, with the rise of the Cold War, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin sought to exploit the world of sport for propaganda purposes. His intent was to demonstrate the alleged inherent superiority of the Communist system through its success in all manner of athletics, and one of the ways he hoped to achieve this was through the game of hockey, long a sport dominated by such Western nations as Canada and the U.S. To reach this goal, Stalin put coach Anatoli Tarasov in charge of building a program from the ground up. And what Tarasov created set the hockey world on its ear.

Unlike traditional Western versions of the game, which were built on intimidating physicality, Tarasov developed a style of play based on finesse, relying more on intricate patterns of passing and skating than on sheer brute force. He brought a highly creative approach to the game, one that was inspired by his study of such unlikely influences as chess and even ballet. This approach completely stumped opponents, who were unable to fathom this innovative style of play.

But, in addition to devising this unpredictable approach to play-making, Tarasov did something else to make his squad invincible – he emphasized the spirit of teamwork. The players became fast friends, almost like a family, spending virtually as much time together off the ice as on it. By encouraging this approach, Tarasov created a harmonious environment for his players to work together, as if they were part of a brotherhood. Cooperation, not competition, dominated the spirit of the team, with its top players serving as leaders for the squad. With its core of defensemen Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov and Alexei Kasatanov, forwards Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov, and goalie Vladislav Tretiak, the Red Army team was virtually unbeatable.

The elements that worked so well for so long, however, came under attack when Tarasov was dismissed after an uncharacteristic outburst at one of the team’s games. He was subsequently replaced with Viktor Tikhonov, a hardline authoritarian Red Army officer who is said to have earned his job more out of favoritism with the political powers-that-be than because of his coaching skills. This change alienated players and likely contributed to the team’s upset loss to a scrappy but eminently less talented U.S. squad at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Such “humiliation” led to further changes, including the sequestering of the Soviet players in hockey camps for up to 11 months a year and holding training sessions as frequently as four times a day.

This routine took quite a physical and emotional toll on team members. Some players reportedly became so depleted that they urinated blood, and one player who wanted to visit his dying father had his request denied because of Tikhonov’s assertion that he needed to get ready for the next game. So, even though the players were eager to wipe the slate of their demoralizing 1980 loss (which they did by capturing gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Winter Olympics), there was also a growing disaffection among them to continue playing for a coach they no longer respected.

Coaching troubles were not the only challenge the team faced. Professional hockey leagues in the West (most notably the NHL) were intrigued by the considerable talent of the Soviet players and sought to recruit them. This raised eyebrows not only among the team’s coaching staff, but also among government officials and the Soviet security agency, the KGB. With the Soviet Union quickly deteriorating and fearing a tidal wave of defections, the team and officials clamped down on players seeking to play in the West, severely restricting their movements. Those who were bold enough to press the issue were told they would have to turn over most of their pay in exchange for the opportunity to play outside the U.S.S.R., an ultimatum that deterred some but made others more determined than ever to chart new courses for themselves. The once-great Soviet squad seemed to be on its last legs.

Ironically, the freedom that playing in the West seemed to symbolize came at a cost, too. Some of the Soviet players who eventually made their way into the NHL found it difficult to adapt to a different style of hockey, and others had trouble adjusting to not having every aspect of their daily lives determined for them. This perceived panacea thus wasn’t everything it promised to be. However, when several of the former Soviet players were able to reunite as NHL teammates, the old magic returned. By being able to bring their singular style of hockey to a league unaccustomed to dealing with it, the former Red Army comrades were able to confound their opponents and experience success once again. They demonstrated that the principles that made them great could indeed be replicated, while simultaneously changing their sport once more.

The world of sport may seem like an odd venue for discussing conscious creation principles, but, in many ways, it’s actually one of the most fitting milieus. When athletes of any stripe engage in their sports, they’re involved in an unmistakable act of manifestation – the attainment of a desired accomplishment defined by a particular set of physically expressed parameters, either individually or collectively. Such pursuits involve earnestly sought accomplishments no less legitimate than those associated with undertakings like the painting of a portrait, the performance of an opera or the creation of a feast. And, when the goals of these ventures are reached, the sense of achievement that comes with them are just as satisfying. So it was, too, for the Soviet hockey team.

Considering the highly competitive nature of sport, however, it’s important to make the most of one’s creative capabilities to stand out from the pack and emerge victorious. This calls for thinking outside the box, envisioning inventive outcomes and then developing and employing suitable materialization beliefs that distinguish one’s efforts from those of everyone else. Such an approach was precisely what the Soviets drew upon in compiling their impressive track record. Tarasov’s belief that an innovative style of hockey could be created and put into practice allowed the Red Army team to stand apart and rise to greatness.

Tarasov’s inventive style of play wouldn’t have worked, though, without the backing of his squad. The players’ beliefs in their abilities, coupled with their faith in their coach’s unorthodox ideas, made it possible for them to succeed. The sense of camaraderie Tarasov fostered, in turn, worked synergistically with these other elements to produce the remarkable outcomes the team achieved. Their joint efforts truly embodied the mass event principles that epitomize collective conscious creation writ large.

Even though global propaganda was the chief intent behind Stalin’s initiative, the Red Army team’s success more likely arose as a result of the foregoing concepts than from the so-called superior nature of the nation’s political system. The coach and team, though undeniably patriotic, seemed to draw more upon their love of the game than on any ancillary considerations. Which is why the team got itself into trouble when prevailing conditions – and the underlying beliefs creating them – changed.

Tikhonov’s coaching style was vastly different from that of his predecessor. Rather than creating success as Tarasov did, Tikhonov sought to control circumstances at any cost. Instead of cooperating with the Universe by fostering beliefs and conditions conducive to achieving desired results, the new coach essentially tried to manhandle the manifestation process. The thoughtful, metaphysically deft touch employed when the program was launched (and led to the team’s phenomenal success) was replaced by a culture of inflexibility that ultimately served to alienate those responsible for realizing the very results being sought. It’s no wonder things eventually fell apart.

In many ways, this downfall was characteristic of the larger society of which the Red Army team was a part. As the Soviet system overall began to collapse under the weight of the ubiquitous unyielding strictures governing virtually every aspect of society, it was only a matter of time before the forces of change reshaping the rest of the national culture – and the underlying beliefs driving them – would also come to affect the country’s hockey team. This greater mass event pervaded the Soviet social order, and the world of sports was not immune. Clearly, the changes that took place within the Red Army team in the late 1980s mirrored what was happening on the national stage.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, did not lead to the disappearance of Soviet-style hockey. As former Red Army team members made their way to the West, they brought their skills and style of play with them, and, in some respects, they helped to change the game outside their homeland. Soundly manifested creations will always find a home – even if it’s not where the innovations themselves originated. (Well played, gentlemen.)

At first glance, “Red Army” might seem like a movie just for diehard sports fans, but nothing could be further from the truth. This excellent documentary transcends the world of hockey, skillfully exploring bigger questions, such as themes related to human nature, society and even creativity, ideas seldom raised in pictures about athletics. The film tells its story well and thoroughly, both in its sport and social aspects, through a fine mix of archive footage and contemporary interviews with team members Fetisov, Kasatanov, Tretiak and Krutov, former Soviet journalist Vladimir Pozner, NHL coaching legend Scotty Bowman and former KGB operative Felix Nechepore. The picture truly packs a lot of information into its scant 85-minute runtime.

For all its strengths, unfortunately, the picture has a few shortcomings. Some of the camera work and questioning in the interview segments is a little amateurish at times. Some of these sequences easily could have benefitted from some judicious editing, too. But, considering everything else the film accomplishes, these failings can be overlooked (though addressing them definitely would have made for a better movie). The picture is currently in limited release, though it has made its way into some mainstream cinemas, as well as the art houses and specialty theaters.

Our ability to create is a cherished birthright, regardless of the avenue of expression in which it is employed. What’s most important, however, is that we never lose sight of it. Whether tossing a salad or firing a wicked slap shot into an awaiting net, these creations all originate with us and our beliefs. Let us hope we always have the awareness to remember that – and to make the most of it when our time to shine comes.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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