One of those nights when you cannot decide whether to stream a sports movie, a mafia movie or a spy movie, you may be in some luck. “Red Penguins,” a new documentary from producer Gabe Polsky, combines such disparate elements as pro hockey, leering organized crime and the confusing post-Cold War relationship between America and Russia in a breezy 79 minutes.
The backstory, nearly three decades later, is a tale of opportunism in one country just as another was in turmoil. For three decades — the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s — Soviet hockey was the envy of the world, with the teams in red with a simple “CCCP” on their jerseys dominating Olympic and international play. With the fall of communism and the breakup of the USSR in 1991, the on-ice talent and draconian coaching of a legend like Viktor Tikhonov were still there, but the money to support a world-renowned team like the Moscow-based Central Red Army went away with the hammer and sickle.
Enter two American businessmen. Pittsburgh Penguins owners Tom Ruta and Howard Baldwin (who briefly was part-owner of the Minnesota North Stars in 1990) came to Moscow with their checkbooks open, buying a 50 percent stake in in the Red Army team. They gave the team a new name and NHL-style logo (the “Russian Penguins”) and installed a young, brash Syracuse-educated sports marketing wizard with orders to reignite interest in the team at the box office. The goals of Ruta and Baldwin were two-fold: make money, and ensure that the western Pennsylvania version of the Penguins had first dibs on the top talent coming out of Moscow.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. But in this spectacular failure is an entertaining story, told mostly through the eyes and memories of Steven Warshaw, the Russian Penguins’ marketing director who was almost certainly the first person in that role to offer fans strippers as cheerleaders and beer-drinking bears on ice. He also was gifted with a nickname by his Russian friends that is as perfect and mystifying as it is unprintable by a respectable news site such as this one (the movie earned a PG-13 rating).
The team, which included future NHLers like Sergei Brylin and Nikolai Khabibulin, was a hit on the ice and at the ticket windows, as Warshaw’s secondary spectacles eventually produced sellout crowds in Moscow. But greed was not good for anyone in the long run. Allegations of team management skimming off the top, the control exerted by the Russian Red Army (of which the Penguins were still officially a branch) and the gradually increasing influence on the team by Russian organized crime in the free-for-all that was the post-Soviet economy made this an overseas investment venture doomed, and eventually dangerous.
A much-rumored buy-in from the Disney corporation, which envisioned an international youth hockey love story as the plotline for an installment in the Mighty Ducks movie series, never came to fruition. By the middle of the 1990s, the Russian Penguins were an odd footnote in the history of Russian hockey, while the business losses were surely written off on the American Penguins’ taxes.
Polsky, who is the son of Soviet immigrants, documents it all with a narrative that is light on the hockey and heavy on the context of the era. The sudden collapse of communism in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe created a kind of economic vacuum that allowed capitalism and corruption to flourish. His editing choices are at times odd. We get to see more shots of Warshaw trying to hail a New York City cab than most would expect, for example. But in all, it is a fun and educational journey.
The movie, distributed by Universal, will be available on demand via iTunes and several other video on demand services, premiering Aug. 4.