Monday, August 03, 2020

Red Penguins: The Pittsburgh Penguins Russian Co-Venture

Who knew documentaries about Russian hockey would become a sub-genre in themselves, but here is the third getting serious distribution. They have the obvious advantage of a sports topic, but they also use athletics as a proxy to examine larger geo-political developments. In this case, when the Pittsburgh Penguins looked for opportunities in Russia, they found excitement and danger instead. Gabe Polsky chronicles their short but eventful venture in Red Penguins, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Quick history lesson for Millennials: we won the Cold War, the Socialist USSR lost, and it was a good thing for the world. Consequently, the Red Army hockey team, the pride of Soviet propaganda, was in danger of financial collapse. Their “Ice Palace” had fallen into disrepair and the team could not even afford new jerseys. Seeing an opportunity, Howard Baldwin, of the Pittsburgh Penguins ownership group, negotiated a financial-management arrangement with the Red Army team.

The Penguin group gave them an infusion of cash, with the expectation the team redubbed The Russian Penguin would start generating merchandising revenue and serve as a pipeline of Russian talent to the Pittsburgh team. Steven Warshaw was the young, crazy marketing kid who was supposed to make it happen.

Somewhat logically, the history of the Russian Penguins parallels that of Russia’s political history. The Yeltsin years were wild and rather dangerous, but also a good deal of fun. However, the fun came to a stop when the mobbed-up oligarchs solidified their holdings under Putin. The Pittsburghers’ Russian adventure parallels that storyline.

Red Penguins is a larky doc that reminisces over the strippers who worked in an underground club in the Ice Palace basement, whom Warshaw eventually brought up on the ice to provide mid-period entertainment. Indeed, Warshaw shrewdly fell back on those old marketing standards, sex and booze, which really started to pay dividends when combined with a hammy mascot and improved play on the ice. Unfortunately, the party came to an end when mobsters started circling the team, with the winking encouragement of the team’s Red Army bosses.

Anyone contemplating a joint-venture in Russia or China should watch
Red Penguins first. As Baldwin and Warshaw explain, they so expected the Russians to skim a little off the top, they even budgeted for it. Yet, the extent of the Russian stealing was so great, it led to a management crisis.

Ostensibly, the Russians won and the Pittsburghers lost, but in a short-sighted way which illustrates why the Russians are still not a global economic power (unlike China). The open Russian corruption scared away Disney, whom Baldwin was courting for a multimillion-dollar merchandising and programming deal. Apparently, Eisner denies it now, but Polsky pretty well establishes their considerable interest. The Russians might have taken Baldwin and company for several hundred thousand dollars, but the opportunity cost for doing so could well have been tens of millions. You can see this kind of thinking throughout the late Yeltsin and early Putin years. The oligarchs grabbed the natural resource companies, but the manufacturing and service industries remain stuck in the mud. Putin is a dictator who means us harm, but the Russian economy is a sickly dog.

So that is my historical-economic analysis and it is probably more than Polsky offers throughout the entire documentary. Shrewdly, he focuses more on the wild craziness going on during Warshaw’s Russian tenure. Much of it could have come from a
National Lampoon movie. Polsky was the first documentarian to the Russian hockey party, with Red Army, so he definitely understands the game. He also had the guts to keep filming when the cops started hassling one of his interviewees, not surprisingly a former public corruption prosecutor.

As a result,
Red Penguins is never boring. In fact, it is more entertaining than Red Army, while presenting a sly vantage point on recent Russian history. Highly recommended for hockey fans and Russia watchers, Red Penguins releases tomorrow (8/4) on VOD platforms.