A penguin mascot
A penguin mascot was part of a US bid to financially rescue the Red Army ice hockey team © BBC/Gabriel Polsky Productions

I’ve heard it said that no matter how well they speak the language, a foreigner will never be taken for a Russian national until the light of hope has died in their eyes. This could be the motto for the attempt of an American consortium to rescue the struggling Red Army ice hockey team after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Americans had deep pockets, boundless enthusiasm and a ton of marketing wheezes. They also had faith in the Russians’ willingness to recognise what was best for business and act accordingly.

Beyond a montage of Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Bush Sr and Clinton, dates and details are fairly scant in this riotous Storyville documentary, in which horror and humour share top billing. Russia’s world-beating team never had to worry about takings, being directly funded by the government, but the cash soon dried up at the beginning of the 1990s. Appalled at the prospect of such a team folding, Howard Baldwin and Tom Ruta, then owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins, met coach Viktor Tikhonov and manager Valery Gushin and negotiated a 50 per cent stake. (Michael J Fox was an investor.) The consortium duly dispatched Steven Warshaw, marketing guru and irrepressible star of this show, to oversee operations. The “smell of death” he detected in Moscow airport was a terrible omen. 

“I expected the country would be somewhat functioning — I was wrong,” relates Warshaw. The team’s arena, misnamed the “Ice Palace”, was “a dump” with a minute trophy cabinet and a strip club in the basement. It was hard to make headway: “Everybody’s drunk in Russia; Gushin was shitfaced half the time.” Nevertheless Warshaw cracked on with smart new branding to replace the “CCCP” and hammer and sickle logos. In came a cartoon of a funky, hockey-playing penguin and a cheeky slogan: “Join the revolution”. Some things didn’t change: there were still strippers. But the free beer nights, a misbehaving mascot, performing bears and freak-show atmosphere drew plenty of punters. 

Sensing synergy with The Mighty Ducks movie franchise and a licensing opportunity potentially worth $100m, Disney wanted in. Warshaw was having a ball, but the febrile atmosphere at the Ice Palace began to cause concern back home, with Baldwin cautioning: “Look, Steve, you’ve gotta cut this crap out.” Russia was descending into anarchy, with the constitutional crisis of 1993 rendered in a montage of riots, tanks and hockey. Things were about to get very grim indeed. “If your partner’s the Red Army, you think you’re gonna be safe,” sighs Baldwin. That was just before the light of hope died in his eyes.

★★★★★

On BBC4 on December 7 at 10pm

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