Red Penguin Review – Solid Doc on Marketing, Money, and The Russian Mob

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Red Penguins, from Universal Pictures, presents the story behind a brilliant idea, from an American investor, to revitalize the once winningest and revered Russian hockey team to the glory days of global dominance and national pride.

Directed by Gabe Polsky, the documentary is narrated by several key players including Steven Warshaw, a then young marketing exec, who fell into a dream job and was sent to Russia to essentially resurrect a dead brand, build the team and create opportunities for sponsorship's.

The documentary begins with an overview of the dominance of the Russian hockey team, with play by play calls and sports clips of the glory days, there is no doubt the players trained under the soviet system were superior to any nations.


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Paralleling the dominance of the hockey team, Russian civil unrest is prevalent and ushers in the decline of the sport as a global superpower with the overthrown of Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and the end of what many viewed as The Cold War.

Communism was essentially dead, and capitalism was the new normal for the Russians. By the 1990s, many of the ice legends had been picked up by the NHL and immigrated to America to further their careers and bring the championship trophy home.

Around this time, as the documentary goes, Howard Baldwin the then part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, came up with a brilliant idea, and along with the actor Michael J. Fox, and a group of investors they set out to revitalize the once great Russian hockey teams.

 

What they didn't realize is the level of decline and erosion at every level of the sport, from the arena to the training schedule to the team uniforms and most importantly the fans. Russian hockey had deteriorated and was virtually unrecognizable.

Enter Steven Warshaw, the young marketing exec who explains, the combination of circumstances made him the perfect candidate to leave his life in New York City, and be shipped to Russia, for what became a chance of a lifetime.

Warshaw was given free reign and unlimited resources to make this venture a commercial success. He reported to his superiors in Manhattan who reported to Howard Baldwin. Seizing the opportunity, a new era in Russian hockey was born.


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Soon, the arena was back to pristine condition, the team uniforms were new, they had logos, a team mascot, Alexander Von Bush, who is also featured in interviews, limited rink board sponsorship's, everything except, of course, the fans.

Gathering hometown support became another of Warshaw's obstacles and as it was Russia, during a time of deep economic downturn, fan appreciation nights, unlike anything ever witnessed in the states became his priority. Slap shot contests, free beer night, giveaways, and the uniquely Russian brand of cheerleaders.

With Nike and Samsung on board, it was only a matter of time before one of the biggest brands in the world, the Walt Disney Company came knocking.


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Then Chairman Michael Eisner, saw the opportunity to advance the Disney brand into the region, not simply Russia, but the surrounding nations, and soon the Wonderful World of Disney was on the ice in Russia underwriting a $100million dollar investment. The marketing machine at Disney soon had the Red Penguins featured in merchandise, new bolder logos, a US tour was planned, trips to Disneyland. With Disney involved the sky was the limit.

With the amount of cash flowing in from the corporate sponsorship's, it was only a matter of time before the Russian Mob entered the scene. Once they began to muscle in, the system of survival changed. Direct bribes were paid out to police for fabricated traffic infractions, personal security and bodyguards were hired and kept on retainer.

This escalated until executions were planned can carried out. Warshaw had a price on his head, five of his colleagues were murdered and the amount of theft had exceeded what was considered acceptable.

The documentary also points out that the investors some financial loss, and fiscal mismanagement, the amount the Red Penguins Army liaison and team overseer was stealing was more than $1 million and the high stakes gamble, which did work for a short time and did advance traditional sport and entertainment, was quickly coming to an end.

In addition to Warshaw, Red Penguins features interviews with Howard Baldwin, former Pittsburgh Penguins owner, Valery Gushin, General manager of the Russian Penguins Hockey Team, Victor Gusev, the Russian Penguins Liaison, Alexander Lyubimov, Russian television personality, Tom Ruta, CFO and Co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the Russian Penguins Venture, Alexander Von Bush was the mascot of the Russian Penguins and Alexander Baranovsky is a Russian General who was the head of CSKA during the Russian Penguins Venture.


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Red Penguins pulls together a time in history which highlights the rise and fall of Russian Hockey, the end of The Cold War, the decline of the Soviet Union and a brilliant idea which was supposed to reinvigorate national pride, and do some good for the local economy along the way.

A documentary worth seeing, Red Penguins premieres September 5, 2020 at the Toronto Film Festival. Enlightening, Informative, an insider's view to marketing, money, and the Russian mob. See it.

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