This documentary offers a lesson in why not to get involved in conducting business in a culture one doesn’t fully understand. The particular men who got involved in the venture can be forgiven, in that their dealings with the Russians occurred at a turbulent time in history—the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of Yeltsin, Putin, and ambitious Russian oligarchs out to exploit this situation and anything else they could, but it illustrates as well the optimism with which Americans have so often ventured into other cultures with high hopes.
In the early 1990’s, Russia’s premier hockey team, the Red Army, began looking for a partner to boost the team’s standing in the world. Their popularity was declining, and audiences were waning. At the time, Howard Baldwin was the owner and chairman of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he and Tom Ruta, a former owner, got the bright idea of making a coalition with the Russian team and came up with the idea of the “Red Penguins.”
They got a buy-in from the Red Army coach, Viktor Tikhonov, and manager Valery Gushin, and launched what they hoped would be a viable partnership with the ultimate goal of bringing capitalism to Russia as it was transitioning from Communist Soviet Union, where Mikhail Gorbachev had come into power, into a potential ally of the U.S. As Americans, Baldwin and Ruta figured that the best person to set this up would be a PR person by the name of Stephen Warshaw.
Warshaw went in with all tools blasting, and it seemed at first that the Russians were just as susceptible to American marketing as we are. Warshaw seemed to have no limits—e.g., strippers for cheerleaders, live bears serving beer, even to children. The arena began filling up again, fans abounded with great enthusiasm, and the partners were super excited about the interest of Disney buying into the partnership.
But alas. The country was in great turmoil—as one Russian businessman (oligarch) commented, Russians were simply unprepared for capitalism (floods of cash) and democracy. And when red flags began to appear in the form of bookkeeping irregularities and huge political upheaval in the country itself (Boris Yeltsin replaces Gorbachev, then Vladimir Putin appears), Baldwin and Ruta were slow to catch on.
Gabe Polsky’s (writer, director), documentary proceeds like a drama, with factual information spiced up with intrigue and suspense. The exploits of Warshaw and his far-out ideas and derring-do add much to this, along with the humor he introduces.
I am not a sports fan, and although this is about hockey teams, clips from actual games are minimal. On the upside, I thoroughly got into hearing about this foray into Russia by hopeful—and rather naïve--Americans that held so much promise, although ended up with such heartbreak. It’s a lesson in business, as well as being educational and entertaining.
A documentary about hockey teams that is more about culture and business than sports.