Red Army trailer provides peek at amazing archival Soviet footage

Jason Kay
Alexei Kasatonov, Viktor Tikhnonov, Vladislav Tretiak, Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov.

In the post-screening interview he conducted with the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival, Red Army director Gabe Polsky said he reviewed about 10 percent of the archival hockey footage made available to him. The vault, it turns out, is massive.

We can only imagine the gems still to be unearthed in the remaining 90 percent, because what viewers are treated to in the 76-minute chronicle is a series of fascinating visual revelations.

We’re exposed to the “other side”; the formative years of the program through Anatoli Tarasov, the unique training methods, clips from Soviet TV, Slava Fetisov on home video.

Read more

Former Canadiens captain Saku Koivu retires, but his amazing legacy will live on

Adam Proteau
Saku Koivu (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Saku Koivu’s NHL career came to an end Wednesday when he announced his retirement, but the ideal manner in which he conducted himself over 18 seasons in the sport’s top league – and the courage he showed in triumphing over cancer – will resonate in the hockey community for years to come.

When Koivu arrived in North America in 1995, he had already established himself as the best player in his native Finland, winning the Finnish Elite League’s regular-season and playoff MVP awards. But none of that could’ve prepared him from life in the hockey pressure-cooker that is Montreal. As the Canadiens’ first round pick (21st overall in 1993), he had expectations placed on him from the get-go, but he amassed 20 goals and 45 points in 82 games of his rookie NHL season.

His physical challenges began in his sophomore campaign, which saw him miss 32 games because of a knee injury. From that point on, Koivu played just one more 82-game season thanks to a slew of ailments that included concussions, as well as injuries to both knees and one of his eyes. Many of those injuries came because he was an undersized player (listed at 5-foot-10) who never shied away from physical contact. He was as brave as any player and respected by all of his teammates for the way he played the game and the way he lived his life. Read more

In Memoriam: Seth Martin – Vladislav Tretiak’s hockey hero

The Hockey News
(Photo by Hockey Hall of Fame / HHOF Images)

By Greg Oliver

He’s in the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame, won two Allan Cups, made Glenn Hall’s first face mask and inspired Vladislav Tretiak. Yet because he only played a single season in the NHL, many fans are unaware of the importance of Seth Martin.

The native of Rossland, B.C., who died Sept. 6, at the age of 81, is most associated with the Trail (B.C.) Smoke Eaters, the perennial senior powerhouse of the 1950s and 1960s.

Read more

Hockey Canada’s elite under-17 program no longer ‘mass participation’

Ken Campbell
Team Ontario, 2008  (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

One of the stories that kind of flew under the radar this summer was Hockey Canada’s new development model when it comes to picking its teams for the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. The players who are picked for that tournament from now on will be judged solely on their hockey talents, not their hometown.

Prior to this year’s tournament, which will be held in late December and early January in Sarnia, Hockey Canada submitted five regional teams from Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, Western Canada and British Columbia. Those rosters included total of 110 16-year-old players from coast-to-coast, but it didn’t encompass the best 110 16-year-old players in Canada. And the problem with that is all Canada’s opponents in the tournament – USA, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Germany – were sending the top 22 players from their countries.

“When you’re from Russia or Finland or Sweden, you don’t know anything about Atlantic Canada,” said Hockey Canada’s senior director of hockey operations Scott Salmond. “All they see is a Canadian sweater and it’s a big thrill to beat that team. In our organization, we want to have a culture of winning and the sooner we start that, the better.”

After seeing its regional teams win five of the tournaments in a row, a Canadian team has won just one of its past four tournaments and wasn’t even on the podium last year. It might be a stretch to suggest that lack of success at the Under-17s has trickled up to Canada’s struggles at the World Junior Championship, but it’s all about cultivating the best talent so that by the time the players are playing in the WJC, they’re more familiar with one another.

So instead of having five regional teams, Hockey Canada instead had a camp this past summer with the 108 best 16-year-olds, regardless of geography. From that, three rosters of 22 players each will be chosen for the Under-17 World Hockey Challenge, so French speaking players from Quebec will be playing with Anglophones from British Columbia, Maritimers with players from Ontario. That way, as Salmond pointed out, the third-best goaltender in Ontario might get a chance to play in the tournament, “because he might also be the third-best goalie in all of Canada. We needed to get this quota system out of it and have the absolute best players together more often.”

The team will be selected by Hockey Canada head scout Ryan Jankowski and his regional scouts and while the three coaches – Jean-Francois Houle, Sheldon Keefe and Dan Lambert – will have some input, they will for the most part be handed their roster and told to coach the players they have been given.

This, of course, has raised the dander of those who think Hockey Canada is further catering to only elite players. By decreasing the player pool at the under-17 level by 44 players and possibly eliminating the chance for unknown players from small towns to be exposed to a high level of competition, is Hockey Canada guilty of identify and catering to only the best of the best at too young an age? Salmond says Hockey Canada’s tracking over the last decade indicates that the best players in any age group tend to move on to the elite teams anyway. Just because the 10th best player in Newfoundland gets a chance to play in the under-17s doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to elevate his game in the following years and be part of the top group of players.

“And this is not mass participation,” Salmond said. “It is a Program of Excellence and we’re not going to apologize for that.”

Red Army documentary a compelling and riveting film

Ken Campbell
Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov, Slava Kozlov (Ezra O. Shaw /Allsport)

In the final minutes of Red Army, director Gabe Polsky pulls out some footage of Alex Ovechkin’s first season in the NHL. As part of a publicity stunt, Ovechkin is firing pucks at Russian dolls filled with Russian dressing. As the dolls explode and Ovechkin celebrates with glee, former Soviet hockey legend Slava Fetisov opines, “We lost something. We lost our pride. We lost our soul.”

Some will portray Red Army, which makes its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival next week and will hit theatres in February, as a clash of cultures. Some will take note of how Russia is back to its adversarial ways in Ukraine and compare it to the Cold War version, one that saw hockey and sports as an extension of the Communist propaganda machine and its best weapon in proving to the world that the ideals of socialism worked.

But more than anything, Red Army is so compelling because it is about the people, the most central character being Fetisov, and how complicated the relationship between hockey and politics is in that country. On one hand, Fetisov speaks of how intrusive and dictatorial the hockey system was under Viktor Tikhonov, then speaks about his country losing its soul when players such as Ovechkin are free to come to North America and chase millions of dollars. (It’s interesting that Ovechkin footage is displayed during Fetisov’s musings about the loss of Russian pride. There might not be an NHL player who is as loyal to and passionate about his country as Ovechkin, who answers the call of duty whenever it is made. In fact, some NHL fans complain Ovechkin cares more about Russia than he does the Washington Capitals.)

It all makes for an incredibly riveting 85 minutes of history and hockey. Seen primarily through the eyes of Fetisov, the greatest defenseman Russia has ever produced and one of the greatest of all-time, Polsky’s film is a study of the progression of the Soviet-Russian game from the 1950s through its deterioration in the 1990s to today. It has incredible footage of early hockey players going through drills under coaching legend Anatoli Tarasov, executing somersaults on the ice in full equipment with Tarasov on his knees in the background saying, “You’ll become great hockey players. And great men.” (The biggest strength of the film is the archival footage, which comes courtesy of Paul Patskou.)

There is film of Tarasov moving chess pawns on a hockey rink diagram – a subtle glimpse of how the players would feel playing later for the dictatorial Tikhonov – and dancing with members of the Bolshoi Ballet. A Red Army recruit from the age of eight, Fetisov talks about his career and the bond he shared with the other members of the Russian Five – defense partner Alexei Kasatonov and forwards Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov. One of the most gripping parts of the film comes when Polsky goes through footage of the game between USA and Russia at the 1980 Olympics. At times, Fetisov looks away as though he’s living the nightmare all over again. Other times he appears concerned and despondent. And by the end he has tears in his eyes.

Most of all, the film provides an illustration of the steely resolve the players had, particularly the ones who had to play for Tikhonov. (The former coach, who declined to be interviewed for the film, easily comes off as the biggest villain of the story. Fetisov recounts a time when Andrei Khomoutov was not allowed to leave the compound to visit his dying father. Fetisov’s wife tells of a time her husband, on the verge of playing in the NHL and growing more frustrated with being stonewalled, was captured by police in Kiev, handcuffed to a car battery and beaten until 4 a.m. According to Fetisov’s wife, Tikhonov then showed up and told police to do whatever they wanted, including throwing him in prison, but do not allow him to leave the country.)

Fetisov, it should be remembered, never defected. But he would also not go to the NHL with the government’s blessing if it meant he had to surrender any of his salary to the Soviet Union. Although Fetisov and Larionov, in particular, enjoyed wonderful NHL careers, the feeling is that once the players were separated, they were never the sum of their parts. That is, of course, until Detroit Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman formed his own version of the Russian Five with Fetisov and Larionov joined by Vladimir Konstantinov on defense and Sergei Fedorov and Slava Kozlov at forward.

All in all, Red Army is well worth the time spent. Polsky, the son of Russian immigrants who played collegiate hockey at Yale, has made a movie raw with emotion and truth that totally hits the mark.

Red Army is being shown at the Toronto Film Festival Tuesday, Sept. 9 at 6:00 p.m. at Ryerson and on Wednesday, Sept, 10 at 11:45 a.m. at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

The top 10 players to watch in the Champions League

Washington first-rounder Jakub Vrana has already started his season (Photo by Andreas Froberg/Linkoping HC/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

If you can’t wait for the NHL season to start, maybe turn your attention to Europe, where the Champions League is off and running. The super-sized tournament for club teams features squads from all over the continent and it’s more than just a place to find fun NHL names from the recent past (Chuck Kobasew! Mikael Samuelsson!). A lot of great young talent is on display, including some top NHL prospects and draft eligibles. Below you’ll find 10 players to watch for as the tournament goes on. Not included were skaters on rosters but yet to play in a game, including 2016 prospect Patrik Laine of Finland, 2015′s Michael Spacek of the Czech Republic and Pittsburgh first-rounder Kasperi Kapanen.

Read more

Concussed Swedish player writes heartbreaking retirement letter

Ryan Kennedy
sticks-492280919

Albin Blomqvist is just 20 years old, but his hockey days are over due to a history of concussions. Blomqvist, who played for Lethbridge in the Western League alongside his brother Axel (a Winnipeg Jets prospect), is now back in Sweden and has penned an article for Hockeysverige.se. It’s a tough read and brings up a lot of important issues for the hockey world.

Read more