Inside the Great Red Hockey Machine

It’s not unusual to see near-identical ideas result in films released at the same time.

Save the world from a killer asteroid. Terrorists attack the White House.

Usually, it’s simultaneous schlock.

It’s happened again, but it isn’t schlock — it was my unexpected pleasure to enjoy two high quality documentaries about Soviet hockey in a three-day period.

It’s hard to imagine that the directors and producers of ‘Red Army’ and ‘Of Miracles and Men’ weren’t aware of each other’s efforts — particularly since the great defenseman Slava Fetisov pays a pivotal role in both documentaries.

It’s not a repetitive journey — each film uses a different lens to tell the story of Soviet hockey.

“Of Miracles and Men,” an ESPN 30 for 30 production, has a higher concept at its disposal: looking at the 1980 Olympics’ ‘Miracle on Ice’ contest from the point of view of the Soviet players who were on the losing end.

The film’s storyline runs through Fetisov, who agreed to revisit Lake Placid to be interviewed there.

‘Red Army’ tries to paint a broader picture — explaining how the Soviet hockey program worked, trying to unravel the seeming contradiction of how such a brutal and rigid system produced such beautiful hockey.

Slava Fetisov is the key figure in both documentaries. Credit: Sony Classics

The answer to that question, in another irony, lies in the efforts of one individual in a collective society: Anatoli Tarasov, the father of Soviet hockey, who developed the intricate passing system that Soviet teams rode to world domination.

Both films tell his story, though it’s featured more heavily in ‘Red Army’ which traces the rise of hockey in the Soviet Union, and also its fall, centering largely on Fetisov, who largely through the force of his will forced open hockey’s Iron Curtain, which had kept Soviet stars from playing abroad.

Both films are well worth anyone’s time; they’re not just for hockey fans.

By happenstance, I saw ‘Red Army’ first, and if one has a choice I
think that’s the best order to watch them in, as it paints a larger canvas that provides context with which to appreciate the specific moment ‘Of Miracles and Men’ revisits.

‘Red Army’ is in theatrical release around the U.S.; ‘Of Miracles and Men’, which debuted on ESPN, is now available on Netflix.

Can’t Go Home Again

Dec.  7, 2014: Hartford, Conn.

Hartford Wolf Pack 4, Binghamton Senators 2

This was my first visit to what I knew as the Hartford Civic Center for 22 years. It was disheartening.

The last time I was there it was because I made a point of seeing a Hartford Whalers game on a trip home. The team had five more years left before nefarious manipulations ended its Hartford run, but I already had a sense that the team’s future was precarious.

About my relationship with the Whalers: it’s complicated.

Always have been a Buffalo Sabres fan, and will be as long as they remain there. But I moved to Connecticut before fifth grade, and my life as a hockey fan became entwined with the Mighty Whale, from games at the Civic Center (many, but not all, against the Sabres) to “Hockey Night in Hartford” on Channel 30.

I’m not looking it up, but in all the years, the Whalers and Sabres shared the five-team Adams Division, which had four playoff spots, I don’t think they both made the postseason in the same year.

So it was pretty easy to adopt the Whalers as my second team, enjoying their triumphant, parade-worthy run to the second round (I attended game three in Hartford) in 1986, (damn you Claude Lemieux) and their division championship the next year as the Sabres were busy, um, rebuilding.

Anyway, to me the Civic Center scene meant buzzing crowds, big-time players, and games that meant something. It had atmosphere.

Everything that was lacking at what is now known as the XL Center.

A small gathering at the former Civic Center.


The year after the Whalers were moved, the New York Rangers moved their farm team into the arena, and there it has remained ever since. The Wolf Pack is in its 18th season in Hartford, matching the number of NHL seasons the Whalers spent there. (But don’t forget the WHA!)

The arena is visibly the same. And in all honesty, the quality of the AHL game wasn’t bad. But the whole experience was as flat as a four-day old cup of soda.

There was a group of rowdy fans that chanted semi-obscenely behind one of the goals. They tried. There was all kinds of the blaring loud music Kevin Dupont refers to as audioporn blaring from the P.A. system. But it echoed off the sea of empty seats.

Many more empty seats are hidden behind the curtains.


There’s a big problem with AHL hockey. The team isn’t really set up to win. Winning’s nice, no one complains, but the team exists to serve the needs of the big-league team, and if those needs weaken the AHL team, so what?

Even if I lived in Connecticut I don’t think I’d ever attend another Wolf Pack game.

I doubt the NHL will return. The league doesn’t have that much class and good sense.

But there is a silver lining for Connecticut hockey fans.

There are three Division I teams in the state. Two of them met in the 2013 NCAA final.

The third, UConn, joined the powerhouse Hockey East conference this year. Given the deep support for UConn sports in the Nutmeg state, I won’t be surprised if the halls of the former Hartford Civic Center buzz and its rafters rattle with cheers from fans watching high-level hockey that counts for something.

Worth Every Penny: Thanks to the Boy Scout leader who offered their extra tickets to me and others standing in line. 

Henrik Tallinder, top, wearing #7, staring down the prospect of retirement.

Bloodlines: The Wolf Pack dressed two Bourque brothers and a Vaive, all sons of well-known NHLers.

Where Have You Gone, Hank Tallinder? To Hartford, where the former Sabre was playing on a professional tryout deal.

He looked like a steadying influence on defense, but the Wolf Pack cut him loose a week later.

Game Report: Here and here.

More photos here.

Soccer City PDX

May 17, 2014: Portland, Ore.

Portland Timbers 3, Columbus Crew 3

It was a weird, but wonderful birthday present.

Get out of town, my wife said. Go see a soccer game in Portland.

So I did.

Now I’m not a Portland Timbers fan. But I am a soccer fan. And I am a fan of Portland. And the two go very well together.

A lot has been written about the fan experience in Portland. The Timbers Army, et al. It’s pretty much true, and I won’t repeat it.


Timbers Army -- European style tifo, without the fascism.
Timbers Army — European style tifo, without the fascism.



What really pushes the experience over the top, and where Portland and its soccer team got a little lucky, is the stadium.
I first set eyes on what was then Civic Stadium in 1990, the first time I visited Portland, and I was enchanted even then. It was a baseball stadium, but something about the way it was tucked into the Portland street grid connected with me.
But I’d never seen a game there until now.
The Timbers owner persuaded the city to pour some money into the old stadium help induce Major League Soccer to town, and part of the former outfield has been converted into a modern stand on the west side.
But the rest of the stadium is delightfully (unless your view is obstructed) retro.
The layout of the stadium combines with the raucous Timbers fan base for a spot-on live experience. Nirvana for a soccer fan.
The game itself was quite entertaining, with a mix of over-the-top fouls, spectacular goals, and gutsy comebacks.

When all was said and done, though, I wasn’t sure how much of a deep impact the Timbers have made on the larger community. Was this support deep, but narrow?
I think I got an answer the next morning, when I stopped at an industrial size breakfast operation, out in the suburbs near the airport, far from the yuppies of the Pearl and the Portlandia characters in Southeast.
I had my Sunday Oregonian open to the sports section, reading about the game, and the server started chatting about the game, and how the Timbers were struggling this year.
I don’t think that would even happen in an eatery across the street from the San Jose Earthquakes’ stadium
On that basis, I’ll say the Timbers have broken through.

Hard proof not everything was updated when Portland renovated the stadium.
Hard proof not everything was updated when Portland renovated the stadium.

The Bad Side: After Powell’s brutal foul, had to spend the next hour listening, over and over, to the bozo behind me complain to his friends about how the ref had blown the call and was biased against the Timbers. This is why Portland supporters are the Vancouver Canuck fans of Major League Soccer.

Postgame Quote of the Year: Portland’s Will Johnson: “We have the heart of the lion, but the brain of goldfish.

Game report here.

Monsters of Ice

Nov. 8, 2013: Fresno, Calif.
Gateway Ice Center
San Diego Gulls 6, Fresno Monsters 5 (2OT)
My unplanned meandering through the lower levels of North American competitive hockey has already led me through Canadian Major Junior and Junior A and U.S. Tier II.
At this point I ought to close the circle. That leaves Tier I and Tier III, but since I had a short weekend to work with the process of elimination led me to the Tier III Fresno Monsters of the Western States Hockey League.
Which may lead readers to the same question I asked myself — what the heck is Tier III? A question I asked again after watching the Monsters play their season opener at what is basically a recreational ice rink without a grandstand.
How do they support a team that was able to play cohesive well-coached hockey, with trappings that include a mascot, without much capacity to sell tickets?
Turns out the answer is simple — the players pay to play.
I didn’t figure that out until after the game, which is just as well as it might have clouded my thoughts to think that these kids’ parents are paying so much to chase what for most will be an elusive dream of a college scholarship. Never mind the NHL.
It was the home opener for the Monsters who were riding high in the standings after several weeks of road games and they played a very disciplined game against the last-place Gulls.
But it was the Gulls that came out on top of the see-saw contest.
A couple things made a difference for the Gulls — differences that highlight some of the factors that have these players in Tier III.
Number one — goalkeeper Brody Cavataio played a terrific game for the Gulls. I almost said ‘played over his head’ but that wouldn’t be nice because, well, he’s not tall, a factor apt to limit his advancement despite his evident competitiveness, reflexes and positioning. Indeed, the Monsters potted their third goal over his shoulder.
X-factor two was the Gulls’ massive Latvian defenseman Kalvis Ozols, who had come over from Europe less than three weeks prior. His uniform was lettered for a guy named Peterson.
Ozols was a man apart in a way I can’t recall ever seeing in competitive hockey. He didn’t really speak to his teammates on the ice, during warmups, or waiting for a whistle.
He basically had only one play: gather up the puck, storm up the ice, cross the blue line, and fire it – hard – at the Monsters’ goal.
And he was terrifically effective, with an assist and two goals, including the overtime game-winner. His raw speed and skill level — despite basically not being able to integrate his play with
his teammates — was an indicator how far they would need to go to rise beyond Tier III.
Hockey Nights in Fresno:
Recent years have been full of bad news about hockey in Fresno and it was far from clear the Monsters would get to play this season.
First Time Experience: Instead of a shootout, after the first overtime the game went to 3-on-3 second overtime. Thanks to Mr. Ozols, there was no need to find out what happens after that.
Nice Touch: The freshly built beer garden at one end of the rink.
My Wife Will Be Happy to Read This: There were no fights.
She Will Be Happy to Read This, Too: Moves are afoot to ban fighting in US junior hockey, according to this New York Times story with a dateline from Fresno of all places.
Odds & Ends: Fresno game report;box score.