Capitals

Red Penguins: The story you've never heard about the Penguins' partnership with Russia's Red Army hockey team

Capitals

It may be the greatest hockey story you've never heard of and it's almost too crazy to believe.

The upcoming Universal documentary Red Penguins tells the story of how the Pittsburgh Penguins developed a partnership with a Russian hockey team. But it wasn't just any hockey team, it was CSKA Moscow, the government-run Red Army hockey team, the most storied hockey team in Russia. They had no idea what they were in for.

Barely three minutes into the movie produced by Gabe Polsky - whose 2014 documentary "Red Army" covered the four decades of dominance by the Russian national hockey team from the 1950s to the 1990s - and you are quickly caught up in a wild ride with Howard Baldwin and Tom Ruta, Pittsburgh's owners at the time, talking about how crazy the idea of getting involved with CSKA really was.

It's never really clear who had the idea and who approached them to form the partnership so you are left wondering why exactly the organization decided to take this gamble. Weirder still: The tangential involvement of celebrity investors like actor Michael J. Fox. 

Even if the movie initially feels rushed to start, however, you soon find out why: Because the real story is what happens when ownership sends eccentric lawyer Steven Warshaw to Russia to manage business there. That's when things get truly crazy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a hockey team that never had to wonder where its resources would come from suddenly had to think about how to make money. Meanwhile, the American investors had no idea what they were stepping into. The Iron Curtain may have fallen, but what Russia was really like behind it was still largely a mystery to everyone. 

 

"I expected that the country would be somewhat functioning," Warshaw said. "It turned out I was wrong."

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A strip club in the arena, strippers on the ice, the Russian mob, bears, stolen money and even an alleged relationship with Disney all followed. Russia was a country in which there were few rules in the post-Cold War era and Warshaw and the Penguins found this out very quickly.

As the team grew in popularity, so did the interest of the Russian mob. Interestingly enough, the ownership group always expected their Russian counterparts to steal from them, but this only became a problem when they began stealing too much.

A plea for help from the Russian Army to combat the influence of the mob led to this telling quote from a Russian general: "I never had any problems with the criminals. If they paid on time then the arrangement worked.”

It wasn't until people involved with the team began to die that the ownership group realized they needed to end their partnership and get Warshaw out.

It's a story too crazy to be fiction and you'll have to see it to believe it.

Red Penguins will be available to stream via iTunes, Amazon and on demand on cable systems across the country on Aug. 4.

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