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‘Red Penguins’ is a Surprising Doc About Hockey and Culture Clash

2019 Philadelphia Film Festival

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The Red Penguins team (Philadelphia Film Society)

In the last couple of years, there has been a glut of documentaries about the intersections between the game of hockey and the fall of the Soviet Union. Both the feature doc Red Army and ESPN’s 30 for 30 chapter Of Miracles and Men told the story of the Soviet national hockey team that lost to the United States in the “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Winter Olympics. The Russian Five, earlier this year, was about the five Russian players who came to the West in the late 1980s, against heavy resistance from parts of the hockey establishment, and helped make the Detroit Red Wings a multi-championship team. Now, Gabe Polsky — who also directed Red Army — has made another tale of hockey and Russia, titled Red Penguins.

Red Penguins tells a mostly forgotten story about an episode in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, when the owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins agreed to buy a stake in the vaunted Russian national hockey team. Michael J. Fox, then at the height of his acting career, was involved with the ownership group as well. There was, as you may have imagined, a major culture clash here, both due to the cultural differences and the state of the immediately post-Soviet Russian economy.

But the arrangement, in which the American owners used the nation’s Yeltsin-era fledgling capitalism to sell the Americanized hockey product, briefly became surprisingly popular. Even Disney got involved, with then-CEO Michael Eisner even proposing a Russia-set Mighty Ducks 5. Eventually, however, it all fell apart through something else that was a hallmark of the Yeltsin years in Russia: rampant corruption. There was various graft and shadiness, and even some unexplained murders of people associated with the team.

The main subjects of Red Penguins are Howard Baldwin, the journeyman sports owner who owned the Penguins and the Russian team, Steven Warshaw, the then-wet-behind-the-ears marketing director, and Valery Gushin, the Russian leader of the program. It’s a rare documentary about hockey history in which Don Cherry makes not a single appearance. 

The film is somewhat reminiscent of Exporting Raymond, the documentary from a few years ago about the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond going to Moscow to create a Russian adaptation of the show, only to realize that the comedic styles between the two countries are radically different. But much like in Red Penguins, they set their differences aside in the name of making money. 

The film also represents a fascinating companion piece to what’s currently going on with the NBA and China: American sports entrepreneurs go to an emerging, less-than-free part of the world, seeking to grow their game, make money, and possibly even help spread positive values — but it doesn’t end up quite the way they want it to. 

Red Penguins covers a relatively unheralded story. There’s only one line about it in Baldwin’s Wikipedia entry, and I barely remember it happening despite following hockey fairly closely at the time. But if you’re interested in that era of hockey, or in how today’s Russia came to be, Polsky’s documentary is instructive.

The 2019 Philadelphia Film Festival runs from October 17-27.

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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