“This was a circus,” Steven Warshaw said. “This was the insane clown posse.”
That might be an understatement.
Warshaw is but one colorful character in a documentary called “Red Penguins,” available on-demand this week, which chronicles the chaotic early years of post-Soviet Union Russia and its once-great Red Army hockey team.
The NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins had bought half the team, seeing a potential pipeline for Russian talent, and saw Warshaw, a fearless, fast-talking New Yorker, as just the guy to market it.
Some of the early 1990s shenanigans he tried seem too silly to be true, and/or too silly to work. But they did, including strippers during game intermissions and beer nights in which underage fans were free to imbibe.
Big crowds ensued, as did profit-skimming by Russians who did not trust their American partners, interest from Disney into turning the whole thing into a movie and the involvement of Russian organized crime.
Among other things.
Soon enough, the entire enterprise came crashing down, leaving a heck of story for director Gabe Polsky to tell a quarter-century later. Warshaw, too.
“We would never do this [expletive] now, but I was 34 at the time, still unmarried, no kids,” Warshaw said in an interview with Newsday promoting the film.
Warshaw knew hockey and Russians from his work representing athletes at the time, and he remains close to the sport and the country.
Even though the hockey enterprise seemingly was brought down by centuries-old culture clashes between the United States and Russia, Warshaw believes that era represented a lost opportunity.
“There was a time we could’ve become partners on the global stage with Russia after the collapse, just like we did with Japan and Germany [after World War II],” he said. “We built them up. For some reason we did not help [Russia], and now we’re in big trouble with China and Russia as adversaries.
“It would have been a whole different story if we could have used this hockey team as sort of the ping-pong diplomacy of Russia like [Richard] Nixon did in China. Unfortunately, the window closed.”
Warshaw’s partner and eventual nemesis, general manager Valery Gushin, is another memorable character, with a sly, infectious laugh that belies seemingly sinister machinations behind the scenes.
“It’s very sad, because you build a house and then you have a hurricane and wipe it out,” Warshaw said. “So the hurricane was Gushin. ‘Hurricane Gushin.’ He was the hurricane and he wiped us out.
“Unfortunately, he had a house on the property, too, so he killed everybody, including himself. Not good business.”
Gushin is interviewed in the film, along with Warshaw and most other surviving principals. The film mixes humor over the absurd circumstances with real-life violence and tragedy.
Warshaw recalled spending two or three weeks at a time in Moscow in those days, “and after a couple of weeks you start to go a little insane. I was starting to put hashmarks on the hotel room wall of when I was going back [to the U.S.].
"Back then there was not much good food. Everything was a mess. It was almost like they learned how to speak capitalism. They were trying to learn a new language, and everyone kept butchering the language, and as a result it was very trying."
Warshaw said the most gratifying thing about the film has been that most of what he called “the hockey intelligentsia,” was unaware of the story, at least the details of it.
“It was a crazy time, and I’m glad it’s over,” he said. “It’s a tragic comedy. It’s weird gallows humor, and at the same time it’s sad that the joint venture never amounted to a hill of beans, which is a shame, because you think how a little hockey team could have changed the world, but it didn’t. That’s the hard part.”