Opening Friday

The Russians who played hockey for the legendary Red Army team revisit some of their glory years with a combination of nostalgia and crankiness in this new documentary. Considering that it takes place at the height of the Cold War, you can hardly blame them.

The story is told from the perspective of Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, the prickly former defenseman and captain of the quintet of skating supermen known as “the Russian Five.” As you would expect, it took a lot of pain and suffering to earn that title. Coach Viktor Tikhonov, who isn’t held in high regard in this movie, dismantled and rebuilt the team after its upset loss to the U.S. in the 1980 Winter Olympics, known around here as the “Miracle on Ice.”

Fetisov and other teammates bitterly recall Tikhonov’s dictatorial coaching stylethey trained 11 months a yearand his stranglehold on their personal lives. (They do have praise for Anatoly Tarasov, the fatherly Soviet hockey legend who used ballet techniques in his training.) But as despised as Tikhonov was, he managed to lead the Soviet team back to victory through the ’80s.

Red Army shows how young men who dreamed only of sliding around on the ice and winning championships became reluctant ambassadors for their homeland, a place they weren’t too certain about themselves. When Fetisov expressed interest in playing in the NHL, he was practically seen as an enemy of the people, and was threatened and roughed up by KGB agents for even considering leaving the country.

Director Gabe Polsky has a tense, awkward time interviewing these men. He often has to walk on eggshells, as they can get quite surly and defensive when he poses an off-camera question they can’t (or refuse to) answer. To be fair, it seems like the players have endured experiences they just don’t want to relive. It was bad enough that they had to go through a lot of bullshit playing for the Soviets. But when some of them arrived in our Commie-hating country, they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms here, either.

Of course, we Yanks came around, especially when Fetisov was part of another Russian Five for the Detroit Red Wings, helping them win the Stanley Cup in 1997. Through a vivid collection of clips and interviews, this enlightening, rousing documentary shows us how these proud but cautious athletes have a complex love-hate relationship with the place they call home, just like everybody else in the world.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Ice blockades.”