As nebbish capitalist meets 1990s USSR hockey, drunk bears and mob hijinks ensue
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Director interviewGabe Polsky sees an empty net for stories on 1990s Russia

As nebbish capitalist meets 1990s USSR hockey, drunk bears and mob hijinks ensue

Now screening,, ‘Red Penguins’ traces marketing guy Steven Warshaw’s attempt to turn former Red Army hockey team on to US-style razzamatazz in time of chaos and corruption

  • From left: Producer Liam Satre-Meloy, Director Gabe Polsky and Tom Bernard, Co-President of Sony Pictures Classics seen at 'Red Army' skating event on Saturday, September 6, 2014, in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)
    From left: Producer Liam Satre-Meloy, Director Gabe Polsky and Tom Bernard, Co-President of Sony Pictures Classics seen at 'Red Army' skating event on Saturday, September 6, 2014, in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)
  • Legendary Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov holding a chimpanzee. (Courtesy Universal Pictures Entertainment)
    Legendary Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov holding a chimpanzee. (Courtesy Universal Pictures Entertainment)
  • A still shot from 'Red Penguins,' by director Gabe Polsky. (Courtesy Universal Pictures Entertainment)
    A still shot from 'Red Penguins,' by director Gabe Polsky. (Courtesy Universal Pictures Entertainment)
  • 'Red Penguins' director Gabe Polsky, left, with Steven Warshaw at the Toronto International Film Festival, September 2019. (YouTube screenshot)
    'Red Penguins' director Gabe Polsky, left, with Steven Warshaw at the Toronto International Film Festival, September 2019. (YouTube screenshot)
  • A still shot from 'Red Penguins,' by director Gabe Polsky. (Courtesy Universal Pictures Entertainment)
    A still shot from 'Red Penguins,' by director Gabe Polsky. (Courtesy Universal Pictures Entertainment)
  • Producer and director Gabe Polsky poses for portraits at the 7th edition of the Rome International Film Festival in Rome, Friday, November 16, 2012.  (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)
    Producer and director Gabe Polsky poses for portraits at the 7th edition of the Rome International Film Festival in Rome, Friday, November 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

NEW YORK — When there are great, swift societal changes, there are remarkable stories that run the risk of being forgotten. Such was the case of the Russian Penguins, an iteration of the former Soviet Union’s Red Army hockey team — the greatest team that ever skated! — as the nation lurched toward a Capitalist society in the early 1990s. It is the subject of Gabe Polsky’s latest documentary, “Red Penguins,” available as an “on demand” stream starting August 4.

For two years a group of investors led by Pittsburgh Penguins owner Howard Baldwin (and including, among others, actor Michael J. Fox) owned a 50 percent stake in the team. The idea was to scout for future players, as many former Soviets were already finding success in the NHL, but also to open up the Russian market to American goods and the American style of advertising and entertainment.

Sent to Moscow’s Wild West was a chipper and confident young Jewish man brimming with ideas. Steven Warshaw, a marketing guy at the Penguins, was the perfect person to export razzamatazz to a society roiled in chaos and corruption.

For a short time it was a “try anything” paradise, and Warshaw introduced the ultra-serious hockey squad to things like halftime shows (drunken bears on the ice?) and celebrity endorsements. Obviously there were some clashes between Warshaw, the legendary coach Viktor Tikhonov and, eventually, unsavory members of organized crime.

Film director Gabe Polsky is the child of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He thought he’d gotten all the Russian hockey out of his system in 2014, when he released a documentary about the legendary team’s glory years entitled “Red Army.” But as you’ll see, fate had something else in store.

The below interview with Polsky, who played hockey at a college level, has been edited for clarity.

The Times of Israel: What is it you love about hockey?

Polsky: As as a kid I think I may have had a little ADD. Hockey is very fast, it’s always moving; it’s never the same, it’s like jazz. With [American] football you stop and have a set play. I also like that you have to know how to skate, how to handle a stick, plus there’s a little bit of violence. It’s thrilling. Anyone who has ever played really fast on the ice knows what I mean.

Even though it can be low scoring, the ice is shorter than a soccer field, so there are a lot of chances to score, and to get creative. I like that it’s a team game, not like swimming or something.

From left: Producer Liam Satre-Meloy, Director Gabe Polsky and Tom Bernard, Co-President of Sony Pictures Classics seen at ‘Red Army’ skating event on Saturday, September 6, 2014, in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

I assumed “Red Penguins” was something that grew from research on “Red Army,” and you figured it should be its own second film. But this isn’t the case. You brought “Red Army” to the New York Film Festival, and after a screening Steven Warshaw came up to you?

Yes, he came and pitched me his story, and believe me, I was not thinking about returning to Russia and hockey again. It was the last thing I wanted to do!

But I gave him my address and he sent me a bunch of material. Honestly, I didn’t even look at it for months. My wife, actually, was cleaning up the house, and I felt guilty; so I looked through this box he sent then I was “Oh, wow, this is crazy.” I said, “You know, if I did this, I could make it really funny and good…”

Wait, back up a minute. Steve Warshaw is a “colorful character,” that’s part of the reason why your movie is a success. Here you are at this event, you have friends around, lots of congratulations, maybe a drink in your hand, a lot of noise… did you think this guy was just some nut? Was he kinda bugging you?

That moment was… well… Steve is a bit of a wacky guy! But he isn’t a “type A” or machismo guy. He appears as a jokester. So I didn’t take him too seriously — I may have been a little, “okay, whatever!”

But eventually I realized Steve was central to this great story. There’s no movie without him as the fascinating and funny guy to take this journey with. So I interviewed him, not even sure I was going to go through with the film. Part of me didn’t want to keep going. But I knew, yeah, I’m going to keep going.

‘Red Penguins’ director Gabe Polsky, left, with Steven Warshaw at the Toronto International Film Festival, September 2019. (YouTube screenshot)

Had he been trying to get this movie made for years?

He claims that I was the first, because he liked “Red Army.” But I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, he’s an energetic marketing guy who knows a lot of people.

They were, actually, developing it as a narrative film, with Howard Baldwin backing it, for Michael J. Fox. Steve told me this, I kinda forgot about it, actually. He said the script sucked.

Back to this box of material in the garage. Was there one thing where it finally snapped into place: I must do this? Was it the image of the bears on the ice drinking beer? Or the mafia guys?

A great movie can’t just be a gimmick, it needs the layers. I felt that all the Russian characters were outrageous. I loved that the mafia got involved. Steve is like a Ben Stiller or Woody Allen character. But honestly — the idea of Russia in the 1990s is such a unique and dramatic period in history. There’s nothing like it: from one extreme to another, and no one really has told that story in a movie.

The idea of Russia in the 1990s is such a unique and dramatic period in history. There’s nothing like it: from one extreme to another, and no one really has told that story

Can you name one film? An American movie depicting Russian culture or mentality, of what they have recently been through? Almost nothing. Nobody knows about this. That’s why [America] doesn’t have a clue about about who these people are — their mentality, their culture. We know the clichés. So I realized I had another opportunity to get into this territory. There’s hardly a crowded market on this stuff.

Legendary Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov holding a chimpanzee. (Courtesy Universal Pictures Entertainment)

You are a child of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union. So many Americans in your position can look at their parents’ “old country” and usually that place is still there. But the Soviet Union is unique in that it is something that was very powerful, but only existed for a short time. Is it weird to you that this place is just not there anymore?

Here we go a little bit into a wormhole. It’s complicated. The people are still there. The culture is there. It didn’t disappear, really. People have that common experience. They speak the language. It’s not the Soviet Union, quote unquote. But what is a nation? Is it just the ideology and the political system, or is it the people and experience?

When I go to Russia, it’s all common stuff: language, culture mentality. As society keeps moving forward, you start to modernize and evolve, sure. It is bizarre, certainly, that overnight something can collapse and there’s new countries called Russia and all the other satellites. But I think that people are still very similar.

And they wrestle with that past, because they were brainwashed about Communism. And now they… have something else, too, whatever you want to call it. It’s complex.

A still shot from ‘Red Penguins,’ by director Gabe Polsky. (Courtesy Universal Pictures Entertainment)

There is a lot of Soviet revisionism right now. I have encountered it, especially online, in two ways. There’s one side that is into Soviet kitsch, which I can understand. But there’s also a surprising amount of people, particularly young people, who seem to think the Soviet Union was really great. The so-called “Tankies” who admire Stalin, and they aren’t kidding around.

The way you describe it, I don’t look at that as a good thing. Some of it is a lot like marketing. The propaganda, the CCCP posters, they are kinda cool, and it sounds cool. It’s somewhat akin to rappers adopting brands like Gucci, or “Scarface,” or something. It just becomes a cool thing.

But whether they really want a Communist and authoritarian government controlling them? I mean, anything can have some positive things to it, I suppose, but I doubt it.

Illustrative: A Russian biker shows a banner depicting Joseph Stalin and reading a WWII slogan ‘For the Motherland! For Stalin!’ in Moscow on April 25, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Dmitry Serebrayakov)

What is Steve Warshaw up to these days?

He was working for Madison Square Garden for a while, managing a floor, but now he is back working in marketing. He’s the head of a company that represents the interests of NHL athletes and other athletes looking for marketing opportunities.

What do you mean managing a floor? Like, managing the corporate box area, where you watch a hockey game like in first class on an airplane?

Well, he describes it as he oversaw a whole floor during games and concerts and events, but he said it in a funny way. He said it sounded important, but he was a glorified coal miner, basically cleaning up puke and shit off the floor. He said it was not glamorous.

A still shot from ‘Red Penguins,’ by director Gabe Polsky. (Courtesy Universal Pictures Entertainment)

But it still comes back to watching hockey, and making it into a big show. How has Steve’s legacy changed Russian hockey?

It’s definitely more Westernized now. But it’s not even close to what Steve was doing, that was a very specific period of time. It’s more sanitized now.

Personally if I am going to see a movie or hockey game, I just want to see the event. I don’t care about the food or the halftime show. I actually find that stuff a little annoying. Steve, on the other hand, I don’t think he really cares that much about hockey. But he knows how to market it.

Listen, if I am watching a hockey game in Russia and bears come out on the ice to drink beer, I’m going to enjoy that.

Yeah, that one I may agree with you on.

The strippers might have been a step too far. Listen, Gabe, we’re talking for The Times of Israel, and we care about The Jews. There’s a funny bit in the movie where Steve is trying to make an analogy to something about Jesus, but messes up and he jokes “my Jewishness is showing.” Do you think him being Jewish in Yeltsin’s Russia was helpful to him? Or harmful? Or had no bearing?

Steve did mention that there was anti-Semitism there. In Soviet times and after. I don’t think it was too big of an obstacle for him, but it didn’t help him.

I think Steve exemplifies a great Jewish characteristic. Of course, we’re all different, but he’s a real survivor. He gets put in a very difficult situation and figures out how to make it make it happen. Historically, I think, this is something we’ve always had to do.

I know that Jews will love this film because Steve is very relatable, but I am curious how non-Jews will view him, and the movie. Will they think he is ludicrous?

Producer and director Gabe Polsky poses for portraits at the 7th edition of the Rome International Film Festival in Rome, Friday, November 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

I have your answer. And the fact that it is a 1990s film cements it. People will watch this movie and say “oh, I recognize this guy Steve because he’s the type of character that would show up in an episode of ‘Seinfeld.’” And, personally, I find “Seinfeld” to be a positive and, let’s face it, oftentimes accurate depiction of the Jewish-American experience.

Yeah. Okay. That’s good.

What are your favorite sports movies of all time?

I liked “Any Given Sunday.” For documentaries, ooh, I do not just want to name the big ones, not just the Oscar-winners, but that’s what’s coming to mind right now. I don’t want to just mention “Hoop Dreams” or the O.J. Simpson series or “Senna.” Don’t quote me without saying I wish I had a minute to think about it, or had a list to look at.

I put you on the spot and that isn’t fair. Next question: are there other great sports stories that haven’t been told?

There’s something I want to make, but if I say it then someone else will do it! But here’s one thing. I made a film called “In Search of Greatness” and it included a piece on Michael Jordan. And during two minutes of it I got to something that the recent series “The Last Dance,” for its full eight episodes, only skirts around. So I have something more I want to express about Michael Jordan that hasn’t really been expressed. I could do something fascinating on that, and it would surprise people.

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