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Toronto Doc ‘Red Penguins’ Recounts Wild Era in Sports

In “Red Penguins,” writer-director Gabe Polsky looks back at a curious and little-known chapter in U.S.-Russian relations following the collapse of the Soviet Union, one that marked the beginning of a promising, if short-lived, friendship between the two longtime adversaries by way of the NHL.

Described as “one of the most bizarre stories of the post-Cold War era,” the documentary, which screens in TIFF Docs, recounts the attempt by the Pittsburgh Penguins and the former Soviet Red Army’s national hockey team to set up a joint venture in an effort to demonstrate to the world the possibilities offered by the new Russia, not to mention the legendary prowess of Russian hockey players.

As part of the ambitious endeavor, the Pittsburgh Penguins hired eccentric American sports marketing consultant Steve Warshaw in 1993 to help restore the bankrupt and downtrodden Red Army team to its former glory. In the lawless vacuum of unchecked capitalism and opportunism, the enterprise succeeds spectacularly. The Red Army team’s games suddenly become Moscow’s biggest entertainment event. Strippers, beer-serving bears on skates and promotional giveaways bring in crowds, cash, big-name sponsors and, ultimately, gun-toting gangsters.

It was the era in which relations between the U.S. and Russia blossomed, oligarchs made their fortunes, international investors discovered their limits and countless murders went unsolved.

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“This curious period in the dazzling demimonde of professional sports is extremely entertaining and as enthralling as a Hollywood thriller — a combination that has excited us about this production right from the start,” said Thore Vollert, director of marketing and acquisitions at Studio Hamburg Enterprises (SHE), which co-produced “Red Penguins” with Gabriel Polsky Prods. and German pubcaster Norddeutcher Rundfunk (NDR). “The film uses its subject as a prism of social, economic and political upheavals, the aftershocks of which we still feel today in the tensions between East and West.”

“Red Penguins” is Polsky’s latest work following 2018’s “In Search of Greatness” and marks a return to familiar territory for the filmmaker, whose 2014 documentary “Red Army” likewise centered on the USSR’s national hockey team. Polsky also serves as executive producer of the National Geographic series “Genius.”

Gabriel Polsky Prods. is handling international sales for “Red Penguins,” with Cinetic Media serving as the film’s sales agent in the U.S.

The film premieres Thursday, Sept. 5, at the Toronto Film Festival.


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