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I have long had a fascination with the Soviet Union and, in particular, Soviet sport. As a child of the late Cold War period, I was certainly aware of the dominance of many Soviet teams and athletes. They appeared disciplined, focused, and absolutely invincible. As a Canadian and a dedicated hockey fan, I was made very aware – and, I believe, at a very young age – about the glorious Canadian victory over the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series. My knowledge of the Miracle on Ice came later, but by that time I knew that a victory over the Soviets was both very difficult and exceedingly rare. While the political and ideological aspects of Soviet versus US/Canada rivalries escaped me until much later, there was always something different about matches against the Soviet Union. There have been few times I have been as nervous watching a sporting event as I did in 1987, as the NHL All Stars narrowly defeated the Soviets in a three game series, and any competition against the Soviets was something “special” – and, not always in the most pleasant of ways.
Still, there was always a deep respect for the Soviet teams and players that accompanied the fear of them. Many friends and family would tell me about the skill and abilities of Soviet players, even as they passionately rooted against them. As a goalie, I knew about Vladislav Tretiak even though, by the time he retired in 1984, I had only seen him play on a handful of occasions. When I was a teenager, in fact, I got to attend a goaltending camp in Edmonton with Tretiak and, later as an undergraduate exchange student in Moscow in 1997, I got to meet with him for nearly two hours – which, to this day, is one of my most memorable and enjoyable experiences of my life.
However, as much as there was an admiration of Soviet teams and players, they always seemed to be dismissed when it came to recognizing their impact, accomplishments, and legacy. Only a handful of Soviet players and coaches are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, for example, with some commentators – particularly in the Canadian sports media – dismissing the accomplishments of Soviet teams. However, it appears that Soviet hockey is being looked at again, in large part because of two recent documentaries.
Both Red Army and Of Miracles and Men re-examine the development of Soviet hockey, looking at the players and people who made the Soviet team nearly invincible (For the record, I have not seen Red Army. Hopefully, it will be available here in South Carolina sometime later this year). Of Miracles and Men, one of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series, does a magnificent job of humanizing Soviet players and understanding the major challenges they faced as individuals and as a team. Perhaps more than that, it makes the viewer realize both how remarkable those Soviet teams were, but just how awful it was at times playing in the environment that many of them did – with unrelenting coaches, administrators, and political pressure. From my vantage point, it is one of the best of the 30 for 30 series – and, it appears that it is available to watch on line for free for a limited time (seriously, it is fantastic!).
Perhaps one of the questions to ask, particularly from a heritage perspective, is why there is a renewed interest in Soviet hockey at this time? Some of it may simply be that the passage of time has made revisiting this past contextually interesting, and that the archival material – not to mention the players – are more available than they were in the past. We are nearly a quarter century since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (has it really been that long?), and there may also be a sense of nostalgia for the team and the rivalries – and, perhaps even for the geopolitical certainty of a defined “enemy.” Perhaps some of it may be tied to material culture – seems that Soviet kitsch never goes out of style. Maybe globalization plays a role, in that places like the Hockey Hall of Fame are welcoming more and more international visitors who wish to see their heritage represented. However, I think more than anything, there is a realization that hockey’s heritage narrative was simply incomplete; that, perhaps like talking about baseball’s history without mentioning the Negro Leagues, the Cold War era narrative in hockey was, at best, reductionist and, at worst, reviled. We are a little more attuned (I hope) to jingoistic nationalism (certainly re-watching the 1972 Summit Series, I realized just what jackasses many of the Canadian player were) and that understanding the “enemy,” not as a faceless robot, but as a human being with hopes and dreams and aspirations might be a mark of our maturity. In any event, it is wonderful to see that the Soviet hockey story is starting to be revealed, as the recognition of it is long overdue.
Much has been written about Nelson Mandela in recent days, and some of it has been about his association with sport – both personally and politically. Of course, there was much more to Mandela than sport – but his use of it as a source of unity, particularly at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, is legendary.
One of the undergraduate courses I teach is heritage tourism, and one of the units in the course is about the politics of heritage. During this unit, I discuss the idea of dissonance in heritage, in that heritage in its many forms is frequently divisive. In other words, one person’s symbol or site of heritage pride is another’s symbol of hate or anguish. Rarely are these divergent views reconciled. In case after case, students are shown that, perhaps, the one inherent quality heritage demonstrates is division.
However, at the end of the unit, I show the students The 16th Man documentary from ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 documentary series. In it, the students see how Mandela took the Springbok – one of the central symbols of apartheid – and made it into a symbol of unity. Of course, this challenges the students to question whether heritage always erects barriers or can actually help to build bridges, so to speak.