An image from Red Army.

The Soviet Union’s hockey players were portrayed by the media as villains who needed to be vanquished in 1980, the final year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

America was feeling a little tired and put upon; the Cold War was in full swing; and somebody needed to get their ass kicked. Who better than those nasty Russian hockey players, right?

Red Army is a winning documentary that looks at those “villainous” Soviet puck-smackers through interviews with the actual players, primarily Viacheslav Fetisov, who rose to the ranks of team captain during his young playing career. Like many Russian players, Fetisov played in the NHL, most notably with the Detroit Red Wings, where he played on two Stanley Cup teams, in ’97 and ’98.

As the documentary shows, Fetisov and his fellow Russian players went through a lot of hell behind the scenes. They were punished brutally if they lost games, and some of them were forced to train until they pissed blood. If family members were dying, it didn’t matter to coach Viktor Tikhonov, who restricted his team members from leaving if there was a game to be played. In short, these guys often got a raw deal.

When the team toured, the KGB closely monitored the players. Defections were rare—but they happened. Fetisov reveals that no matter how rough things got, leaving his country illegally was not an option for him. He’s a very proud guy.

Director Gabe Polsky was originally supposed to get just a few minutes to interview Fetisov for the doc. He wound up getting 18 hours over a few days. One of the film’s charms involves Fetisov’s banter, and his frequent annoyance with Polsky. He flips off Polsky just a few minutes into the film while ignoring Polsky and looking at his phone, yet at other times, Fetisov warms up—and reveals a very human story behind the Russian legends.

When Perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union occurred, the Russian government publicly said the players were free to pursue NHL careers. Behind the scenes, as Fetisov describes, it was a very different story: The players were threatened with being shipped off to Siberia, and their families were harassed. When players were allowed to leave for the NHL, they had to ship major parts of their salaries back to Russia.

I was 11 years old when the “Miracle on Ice” occurred, and I was a diehard baseball fan. I didn’t care that the Americans beat the Russians; I just wanted the New York Mets baseball season to start. Still, I remember how that victory sent everybody into a Russian-hating frenzy. If anything, that hockey victory introduced my young self to the notion that we had a real problem with the Soviet Union—and it sent my adolescent fears about nuclear war into full-blown anxiety. In other words, I sort of resented that particular Olympics for making me more aware of my impending doom.

Today, after seeing Red Army, I’m feeling a lot of sympathy for those guys, 35 years later. Some of them, including Fetisov, have returned to Russia. (Fetisov, in fact, has a political post, appointed by Vladimir Putin himself.) Late in the film, Fetisov talks about how much his country has changed since the days of being trained by that bastard Tikhonov.

Those players should’ve been having the time of their lives when they toured the world for sport. Instead, they were getting mulched into dust by Mother Russia. Still, as Red Army shows, some of those players put together decent lives in the face of monstrous adversity—and some of them later became teammates with players who beat them on that big Olympic day in 1980, the day when I became keenly aware that I could get blown up at any second.

Red Army is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565).