Red Penguins is a sports documentary that is less about the actual sport – ice hockey – than the place and time and personalities. It’s the story of how the Pittsburgh Penguins owner had the crazy idea to step in and save the Russian Hockey Team after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 left them penniless and unmoored. It’s a wild dive into the New Russia with its gangsters and emerging capitalism. And the actual game isn’t really all that central to this fascinating story. The naiveté of the Americans believing that business would be conducted just like at home in the a country that was just emerging from decades of state control is pretty hilarious in hindsight. And the film itself teeters between these naive American’s rushing in with money and the Russians taking advantage with a wink and a nod and a Kalashnikov at the ready. It’s definitely a stranger-than-fiction doc worth seeing.
The Pittsburgh Penguins really seemed to have started with altruistic aims. The greatest hockey team on earth was dying and they thought that they could come in to help. They and a bunch of deep pocketed hockey fans including Michael J. Fox became co-owners of the team and hired marketing wiz Steven Warshaw to get the fans back in the seats. And it worked. He did everything from free beer nights to strippers behind the Zambonis to entice the audiences, and soon the once empty arena was filling to capacity every game. And even Disney came a-callin’ offering a $100 million deal and a Mighty Ducks flick to boot! But all that money flowing through the coffers was just too much for the Russian mafia not to want a piece of the action. And what seemed like the beginning of a beautiful friendship quickly became a very dangerous venture and ultimately fell apart.
The film is told from a few perspectives. Steven Warshaw was at the center of it all and was the last to leave when it all collapsed. The Russian team General Manager Valery Gushin who cooked the books for more than a million dollars tells his version with a pretty creepy “what did you think would happen?” shrug. The film is both funny, unbelievable, and scary. And entirely engrossing. It’s basically a great history lesson about the fall of the USSR and the violent lawlessness that followed wrapped in a business deal gone awry tale. Loved it!