Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Red Penguins

Red Penguins looks back at the Pittsburgh Penguins owner Howard Baldwin bailing out the once great HC CSKA Moscow hockey team. Completely unprepared for what they were getting into in a country still struggling with replacing Communism with Capitalism, the Penguins hoped to lay the foundation for Russian players making their way to Pittsburgh and the NHL. A young marketer named Steven Warshaw was sent over to try and drum up support for the flagging team and bring a bit of capitalist know-how and 90s marketing to the former Soviet Union.

The engaging documentary is a bizarre tale including interviews from both American and Russians about the partnership which only lasted two years but involved a strip club under the hockey rink, free beer, a culture clash, the Russian mob, a potential business partnership with Disney, the Russian Army, corruption, and the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Despite the insanity and mismanagement, the Russian Penguins (as they were rebranded) were a short-term success only to be mismanaged leading to the end of the team and leaving behind a bizarre legacy and a legend of dazzling failure.

Director Gabe Polsky has a good story here and can let the various anecdotes and remembrances speak for themselves. It's hard to tell just when the Penguins and Baldwin realized they had gotten in over their heads, but hearing how events unfolded allows for some great storytelling. Warshaw is the most charismatic of the subjects interviewed, and earns the most screentime as the American on the ground in Moscow with the most first-hand experience. If the documentary has a bias it leans in favor of Warshaw's account while interviews needing translation seemed to be at the mercy, and limitation, of the team's translator and the director's access. Even if only half the stories presented here are true, that's more than enough to recommend the film as it chronicles one of the odder sports boondoggles in modern history.

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