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‘Red Penguins’: Fun documentary revisits a wild collision of Russian hockey and U.S. hucksters

The fascinating saga involves Michael J. Fox, mobsters, strippers and dancing bears.

“Red Penguins” looks back at when U.S. investors used marketing gimmicks, including a goofy new mascot, to pump energy into Russia’s formerly fierce national hockey team.
Universal Pictures

Just a few months ago a lot of folks (including yours truly) were all jazzed up about a fictional adaptation of the Netflix docuseries “Tiger King” to the point where we were writing up pieces about our dream casts to play the cast of trashy characters.

Forget “Tiger King.” I’m over “Tiger King.” I want to see a big-screen, star-studded adaptation of “Red Penguins.”

You want to talk about a wild and crazy movie, based on true events, brimming with larger-than-life characters and made-for-the-movies storylines? “Red Penguins” has it all. It’s a period-piece, unlikely underdog sports story crossed with a dark comedy that meets an international farce with a sudden dose of mob violence and institutionalized corruption.

Even if we never get the David O. Russell or Oliver Stone or Adam McKay adaptation, we’re gifted with Gabe Polsky’s insanely entertaining, WTF-worthy, endlessly fascinating documentary. A follow-up of sorts to Polsky’s brilliant 2014 “Red Army,” which told the story of the Soviet Union national hockey team’s dominance from the 1950s to the 1990s, “Red Penguins” has a strikingly different (and pitch-perfect) tone, as Polsky expertly unwinds the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of what happened to high-level hockey team after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

In short: It crumbled in a heap. The government-run arena in Moscow fell into filthy disrepair, with barely functioning bathrooms. (However, a seedy strip club continued to operate in the basement of the arena, I kid you not.) As some Russian stars fled to the NHL, fans lost interest in the once-hallowed game, and games were played in front of sparse, uninterested crowds.

Enter a group of North American investors, led by the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL club and including actor and hockey superfan Michael J. Fox, who purchased 50% of the team, provided an influx of much-needed cash, and sent a young and brash marketing whiz named Steve Warshaw to Russia to literally rebrand the team (they become the Red Penguins, complete with goofy, American-style mascot) and pump energy into old-school hockey.

For a time, Warshaw becomes a source of great amusement and even something of a folk hero, thanks to his innovative marketing techniques, which include bringing the aforementioned basement strippers upstairs to the arena to dance between game periods; hosting “free beer nights,” which attracted hordes of teenage fans; actual dancing bears serving drinks, and big prize giveaways. Why, you could even get your company’s logo on the team’s jerseys or helmets for a fee! (Imagine if they tried to do that today in American sports. Oh wait.)

“We are the only arena that has clean bathrooms and free toilet paper,” says Warshaw in an early 1990s interview. “[Fans are] issued two meters of toilet paper as they enter the bathroom. This is so they don’t steal the rolls.”

A hero for the times, indeed.

Eventually, though, Warshaw was told by a person in a position of authority he might want to go back home, what with the $6,500 bounty on his head courtesy of the Russian mafia after he refused their offer to come work for them.

Like I said: THIS IS A MOVIE.

Polsky masterfully weaves in archival footage with present-day interviews with Warshaw (who now works for Madison Square Garden and has as much hyperkinetic energy as he did in 1993); legendary Russian defenseman turned coach Viktor Tikhonov, who is always smiling and laughing and yet exudes a persona akin to a villain in a Liam Neeson film; longtime Red Army (and then Red Penguins) GM Valery Gushin, who allegedly skimmed more than $1 million in profits from the operation in a single year; former Penguins owners Howard Baldwin and Tom Ruta, and even a Russian Army higher-up who scoffs when asked why the military didn’t intercede when the Russian mafia stuck its blood-soaked hands in every facet of the team’s operations. I never had any problem with the criminals, he says. If they paid on time then the arrangement worked.

With the revitalized franchise packing the arena and raking in the cash, the Russian mob, or “businessmen” as they refer to themselves, brazenly moved in and exerted their authority. “Red Penguins” starts to look like a non-fiction version of a Scorsese movie as we see the butchered remains of a number of figures who were perceived to have crossed the mob, from one of the most well-known TV personalities in the country to a team photographer who inadvertently captured the images of some mob bosses in the background of a picture. Madness.

Meanwhile, there was chaos in the streets just outside the arena, to the point that when a lucky fan won a $30,000 Jeep, he immediately negotiated a cash payment of $10,000 in lieu of the vehicle because he knew he’d be carjacked the moment he drove out of the arena. To paraphrase one of Warshaw’s marketing slogans, it was the Wild, Wild East — and thanks to this superb film from director Polsky, we now have the definitive record of one of the craziest chapters in the history of ice hockey.

Upon further review, maybe Hollywood should leave well enough alone. It would be awfully difficult for any work of fiction to outdo the truth.