Dave Feschuk: Penguins meet jokers in doc on Russian hockey marriage that was doomed from the start

Do you remember that chapter in hockey history when the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, bought a piece of Russia’s famed Central Red Army team and rechristened them the Russian Penguins?

Do you remember how Mario Lemieux and Michael J. Fox were among the investors, or how Victor Tikhonov, the legendarily stone-faced coach of the once-communist Red Army, went capitalist with an endorsement deal for Vicks cough drops?

Until director Gabe Polsky began working on his latest film, he certainly didn’t — never mind that Polsky is a Chicago-born former NCAA hockey player who speaks Russian and who’s made multiple films about the sport. And Polsky figures he’s among the vast majority of hockey enthusiasts who can claim no recollection of the partnership.

“You know why it’s a forgotten chapter?” Polsky was saying this past week. “They were trying to make it seem like it was a success story, ‘Look at this, the Russians and Americans collaborating. This is the greatest thing. It’s a huge success.’ But when it all went to s—, they didn’t want people to know how bad it was.”

Exactly how poorly it went — and let’s just say that as U.S.-Russia partnerships go, it was less successful than, say, Trump-Putin -– is chronicled skilfully and entertainingly in Polsky’s Red Penguins, the documentary that ended its run at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday. The film brings viewers back to a moment in time in post-Soviet Russia when anything seemed possible, not to mention potentially profitable.

In a rink in Moscow in the early 1990s, after all, a once-grand hockey tradition lay in ruins. The best Russian talents had long defected for the National Hockey League (although Nikolai Khabibulin, who’d go on to win a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay in 2004, was still manning the goal crease). The Red Army hockey team, the club that formed the core of a national team once made a world power thanks to funding from the Soviet machine, was suddenly impoverished both competitively and financially. The team’s Moscow arena was in need of repairs. Attendance was negligible.

Enter Howard Baldwin, the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who saw an opportunity to revitalize the once-proud club while being among the first Americans to go to Russia and make a buck. But first, a new on-ice uniform was in order, specifically in the guise of a Penguin kitted out in a red star.

“We had to change the brand. All you had was CCCP,” says Baldwin in the film, speaking of the Red Army’s iconic sweaters. “And somebody might say, ‘What was that? Did somebody get the typewriter stuck?’”


Unleashing the best practices of U.S. sports marketing into the lawlessness of post-Soviet Moscow makes for some primo film fodder. You’ve got to see it to believe it. Russian mafiosos populated the arena’s private boxes. Exotic dancers, some of whom worked in the strip club in the arena’s basement, served as the team’s de facto cheerleaders.

“They would skate behind the Zamboni pulling off layers of their gear until they were left in pasties and a G-string,” Steve Warshaw, the Russian Penguins’ vice-president of sales and marketing, says in the film.

This was the stuff of uncharted territory in Russian sports: rinkboard ads, luxury boxes, vehicle giveaways, free-beer nights. When Warshaw’s marketing department got extra-creative, there was even a live bear serving the suds — which went great until Vladimir Vikulov, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and Red Army legend, watched the bear bite off the tip of his finger at a game, this according to Warshaw.

“There’s no rules in Russia,” Warshaw says in the film. “We get away with everything, except murder.”

For a brief moment in time, it looked as though the project might find success. Warshaw said Disney was interested in a licensing agreement (although Michael Eisner, who ran Disney at the time, declined an interview with Polsky while disavowing any knowledge of the Russian Penguins). Not that the quality of hockey was much; the film shows the team getting blown out on a North American tour of the minor-league International Hockey League. But as for the allure of U.S.-style in-arena sizzle — it found an audience, at least momentarily. More than a few U.S. news broadcasts hailed its success.


“(U.S. president Richard) Nixon went to China using ping-pong diplomacy, and we naively felt we could use hockey diplomacy as a way to unite the two superpowers,” said Warshaw in a recent interview. “And boy were we wrong.”

The team’s failure, mind you, is the film’s success. Red Penguins is a delight because Polsky, who travelled to Russia on a tourist visa, landed interviews with a diverse roster of key characters. He was granted an audience with a former KGB prosecutor, a military general, and a Russian mobster who once populated an Interpol most-wanted list. (“It was super intimidating,” Polsky said of the latter sit-down. “He was a teddy bear. But I knew, you don’t mess with a guy like that.”)

But Warshaw is the heartbeat of the film. Now a sports-business entrepreneur — he’s the guy to call to pitch an endorsement deal to Artemi Panarin — Warshaw’s Russian recollections are as vivid as they are wild. In the end, the Russian Penguins were strangled by the tentacles of local corruption. According to Warshaw’s calculations — and it was his meticulous file-keeping that Polsky credits as a foundational piece of the film — the team’s Russian partners, Tikhonov and Red Army GM Valery Gushin, came to steal something in the neighbourhood of $1 million a year from their U.S.-based partners.

“I said to Gushin and Tikhonov many times: ‘Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered, and you are being hogs,’” Warshaw said in an interview. “I expected you to steal a couple of hundred thousand, but not a million. Gushin looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You’re never going to leave Russia, because you have too much pride. You’re never going to admit you failed and lost to the Russians.’ I looked at him and said, ‘You’re wrong. Bye-bye.’”

Before Warshaw left Moscow, mind you, he says he was visited by a representative of a criminal organization who insisted it would be in Warshaw’s best interest to stay in town and, ahem, keep working.

“He said to me, ‘If you don’t work with us, we will kill you,’” Warshaw said. “With my usual insane response I said, ‘What is a hit on my life worth?’ And he said, ‘$6,500.’ Then I said to the interpreter, ‘Tell him he’s overpaying for a little guy like me. He should only pay $3,000.’”

Warshaw said the mafioso, apparently bemused, suggested he and Warshaw repair to a bar for vodkas.

“To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to get killed,” Warshaw said. “I thought I was going to get beaten — just to send a message. But luckily, that never happened.”

All these years later, it was mostly as though the whole thing never happened, until Polsky cast his lens on the tale.

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“When it all comes down to it, as Gushin said in the film, the Russians will never trust the Americans,” Warshaw said. “There’s an innate distrust there. I married a Soviet woman and she used to sing these songs she learned as a young pioneer, and the lyrics were all about hating America, not to trust us, how the Soviet Union is the greatest and America’s horrible. So I think it’s genetic, almost. It’ll take a few generations for it to leave the gene pool.”

Like the NHL Penguins parted ways with the Central Red Army, Warshaw said he is no longer married to his Russian bride.

“That experiment didn’t work, either,” Warshaw said.

Dave Feschuk

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