By Jim Slotek
Documentarian Gabe Polsky may protest too much that he doesn’t want to be known as “the Russian hockey guy.”
But he pretty much already is that guy after directing the acclaimed 2014 doc Red Army – about the elite years of the Soviet National Team, and the experiences of the first Russians in the NHL – and following it up at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival with the almost farcical Red Penguins.
The latter is the tale of the anarchic early ‘90s, immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union. That’s when Pittsburgh Penguins owner Howard Baldwin and a team of investors that included Michael J. Fox, Mario Lemieux and a professional promoter named Steve Warshaw, ponied up $1 million for a piece of the bankrupt former Red Army team in Moscow (which was renamed the Russian Penguins).
Their investors on the other side: Viktor Tikhonov, the unsmiling long-time Russian coach and the brutish Red Army general manager Valery Gushin. The two had somehow acquired marketing rights from the failed state. (At one point Tikhonov would hire mercenary “Spetnaz” special forces to hold the arena when the army tried to take it back.)
If Moscow of that era doesn’t exactly sound like the happiest place on Earth, it’s worth noting that Disney would eventually buy in, with dreams of $100 million worth of Russian marketing possibilities. They backed out when new “investors” – mobsters – started entering the picture.
“It took me a long time to accept I was going to do this film,” says Polsky, a former Yale hockey player whose parents were from Kiev, and who spoke Russian in his childhood. “I kept reviewing the material and saying, ‘I know this is going to be great. And I know I can tell it with my skillset really well.’
“This weird tone, the wildness, the weirdness, the Russian soul. I could provoke these guys the right way because my parents are from the former Soviet Union. But I was really reluctant.
“I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. At least two years it was on my radar. My wife was constantly pushing me to look into it more. And I kept saying, ‘I don’t want to be the Russian guy.’
“Finally, I said fine. Let me just interview Steve. He was an interesting character, let’s see how he was on camera. I went to New York and sat down with Steve and shot it and decided there was something there.”
Warshaw, who also attended TIFF and promoted the film, said “a million dollars represented our investment in the team. And for that million-dollar investment, we were entitled to 50% of the returns.
“We shared our 50 with them, and they didn’t share their 50 with us. So, any sponsorships they brought in, any revenues they produced, we never saw.”
Complaints? Warshaw claims Gushin once threatened to hang him from the arena rafters by his thumbs. The Russian mob was a real presence, but in the film Gushin laughs weirdly loudly at its mention, claiming Warshaw was paranoid about everything. In fact, four people associated with the team were murdered, including Alexander Osadchy, whe’d been drafted by the San Jose Sharks.
Still, Warshaw carried on with every weird promo he could think of (There’s a strip club in the decrepit arena? Bring the dancers out as between-period entertainment).
“They asked me if I wanted a security detail,” Warshaw said. “I said, ‘Definitely not. Because if I do, it’s going to call attention to myself’. So I took the Metro. I’d be there in the morning handing out tickets to kids. ‘Who’s this weird American guy riding the metro? Giving out tickets, talking to the mothers?’ I made sure I was part of the culture.”
Polsky’s filming was equally seat-of-the-pants. “I got a traveler’s visa. I didn’t know if I’d get anyone. I don’t know if I was on anyone’s radar. The sentiment against Americans was terrible. I could just see it.
“Honestly when I arrived in Russia, I sat there for three days without a single interview. I was on a vacation in Georgia and kind of on a whim I said, ‘Okay, I’m just going to go there and see what I can get.’
“Gushin was the ‘big get.’ From what I recall, it was hard. He was distrustful, but we knew we wouldn’t have a film without him.
“It was October, 2016. It was a bad feeling. Driving around felt a little weird. There was me, a sound guy, a cameraman and very minimal equipment. We’d drive around form one thing to the next.”
Surprisingly, Warshaw returned to Moscow repeatedly after the Red Penguin project failed.
“When I came back home, I started my own business and actually had a lot of Russian clients. I went back to Russia and was a consultant to Russian Fashion Week for a few years. We also tried to create consultancies with (hockey teams) Dynamo and Spartak, the Bolshoi Ballet, but nobody had any money.
“It’s just like anything else in life. If you have a bad date, you don’t stop dating. We fell in love with the country, but they didn’t love us back.”
Red Penguins plays Saturday, Sept. 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Scotiabank 4.