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Hockey Great Slava Fetisov Featured In 'Red Army' Documentary


We are about to meet a man who rose to prominence in two countries that seem like enemies today, the United States and Russia. His name is Slava Fetisov. He was one of - if not the - greatest Soviet hockey player ever. He played for the national Red Army team, whose players were officially in the Soviet military. And that's how seriously Russia takes hockey, which made the 1980 Olympics especially painful. Slava and his comrades lost to an upstart American team.


AL MICHAELS: (Yelling) Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? Yes.

SLAVA FETISOV: We lost it unexpectedly, and this was sad for me. And I was going to play for the national team and play in Olympic Games.

GREENE: Was it a difficult loss just not for the hockey team but for the Soviet Union as well?

FETISOV: I mean, as hockey as the number one sport in the country, of course the fans was upset. I mean, everybody was upset.

GREENE: That 1980 game is just one scene in a new documentary that opens across the U.S. today. It's called "Red Army." In large part, it is Fetisov's story. He's in New York City promoting the film now. And I sat down with him earlier this week. Despite that loss in the '80 Olympics, the Soviet team dominated hockey everywhere. The team would spend 11 months out of the year locked away, practicing, away from family.


FETISOV: We practice four times a day in the summer, four times.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Players had to live in these hockey camps. And they would get out maybe one weekend every month.

GREENE: By the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union began to collapse, many of its best players were tempted to leave and play professionally in North America, including Fetisov. On a visit to New York City at that time, Fetisov was encouraged to defect by the general manager of the National Hockey League's New Jersey Devils.

FETISOV: And he took us to the dinner, and he said, Slava, they'll never let you go. You should stay here. You know, we're going to give you a good house. We're going to give you a good car. We're going to give you a good salary, and you're going to be happy here. And the next second, I said, I cannot defect. I cannot run away from my country, and I should fight.

GREENE: Fight for what? What were you fighting for at that point?

FETISOV: For the freedom, for the Democratic way of development. Because, you know, it's - they offered me to go and - but they said, you're going to bring all this salary to the embassy. You're going to make one-thousand bucks a month.

GREENE: This was the Soviet government telling players like you...

FETISOV: Yes, yes.

GREENE: ...You can go to the United States...


GREENE: ...But we're going to take most of the money.

FETISOV: Yes, but then I feel same moment like a slave. They're going to sell me, and they're going to make money out of me. And I fight, and this was hard.

GREENE: Angry as he was, he didn't want to play in the United States by the Soviet Union's rules. He returned home, but he quit the Soviet team in protest. And he was ostracized by teammates, even beaten at one point by the police. Refusing to back down, Fetisov, who was still officially in the military, took his fight to one of the most powerful men in the country - and the man who had ultimate control over the Red Army team and, still, Fetisov.

FETISOV: Finally, you know, I went to the office of the minister of defense. He start scream at me, I know you want to go to play for our enemy and stuff like that. They're not going to send you to Siberia and stuff like that.

GREENE: And you walked out on him.

FETISOV: Yeah, and he said, you're going to be sorry rest of your life. But in two weeks they released me from the army. And then in two months I was on the way to New York.

GREENE: But once he arrived in the U.S., the reception Fetisov got from NHL fans was so different from what he'd been used to playing in front of Soviet crowds.

FETISOV: They hate me. They didn't even know my story. They just put cliche. I'm a Soviet officer. I came here to make the money and send money back. And the Soviet government going to make the nuclear weapon and send back to New York. I mean, it's kind of continue of the Cold War on ice. And even harder was to realize that your teammates doesn't like you because you came from Soviet Union.

GREENE: Eventually, though, Fetisov turned American fans around. He helped the Detroit Red Wings win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. He made a life for himself in the United States. His daughter was born in New York City. He went on to become an NHL assistant coach. But then, in 2002, he got a call from Russia's President Vladimir Putin, who wanted Slava Fetisov to come home and become his minister of sport. Putin told him...

FETISOV: I need you to help me to develop the program for the kids, for the youths. And the same time I got three offers from the NHL teams to continue my coaching job. But to get offered to do something for your people, you know, you cannot think twice, you know?

GREENE: You taught Vladimir Putin how to skate.


GREENE: What's he like?

FETISOV: He pushed the chair when he started, you know. It's very funny, but...

GREENE: Push the chair?


GREENE: What do you mean?

FETISOV: It's when you teach the somebody and the kids to skate, you know, you need something to push to find the balance, you know? That's - at the age 56, I believe.

GREENE: He's pushing a chair across an ice rink with you.

FETISOV: Yeah, yeah. And then he become good hockey player.

GREENE: When you arrived in the United States, you were describing how Americans had these stereotypes. They thought you were, you know, the enemy. They had this very negative view of you. It feels like now, in 2015, a lot of Americans have a negative image of Vladimir Putin and by extension Russia. What can you tell them?

FETISOV: I don't know why. We look alike. We got family, kids, a job, you know. We look the same. And we need to, you know, think what kind of situation we're going to leave for our children and for our grandchildren and stuff like that. And it's probably better to build the bridges than the weapons, you know. That's what my philosophy, and...

GREENE: But I think a lot of Americans would hear you and like what you're saying, but then think about what's happening in Ukraine and Crimea and Vladimir Putin, and not feel like it's...

FETISOV: Ukraine, Ukraine - this is a local thing. It's - no Russian involvement there. You have to understand. It's the Russians speaking Ukrainian. They fight for their identity. They fight for their language. They fight for their land. And for us, it's...

GREENE: Because the West would say that Russia is involved in Ukraine, that it's...

FETISOV: No, Russia tried to do anything to stop this war.

GREENE: But you can - I mean, you want peace, and you wanted...

FETISOV: I wanted peace. And that's the only way to survive.

GREENE: And you can tell Americans that Vladimir Putin feels the same way?

FETISOV: I think so. I'd rather to see the blat on ice during the hockey game than on the ground. And it's probably it's a two-way street. You have to, you know, try to build a relationship. And that's why I'm here.

GREENE: Thank you so much for coming in and talking.

FETISOV: Yeah, thanks. It's a - hope I can see you in the hockey game.

GREENE: I would really like that (laughter). That's legendary Russian hockey player Slava Fetisov. He is featured in the documentary "Red Army," which opens in 24 cities across the U.S. this weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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