Back in the USSR? One of Hockey's All-Time Greats Defends Putin

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Slava Fetisov is one of the best hockey players of all time. He’s won seven world championships, three Olympic gold medals and three Stanley Cups — two as a player and one as a coach.

He was one of six players — and one of two defensemen — named to the International Ice Hockey Federation’s All-Century Team.

But he’s probably best known in the United States for losing one game: a 4-3 loss at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, now known as the "Miracle on Ice."

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The tension between Fetisov’s brilliant and extemporaneous on-ice skill and Russia’s rigid bureaucracy is a central symbol for a nation’s Cold War worries in "Red Army," a documentary that chronicles the outward success and inner turmoil of the Soviet Union’s national hockey team.

Central to Fetisov’s fight: he wanted to leave the U.S.S.R. to join the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. His national team coach had promised him he could go, then reneged. The Devils had suggested he defect, but he refused.

He wanted to leave the proper way — not that anyone had done it before. So Slava Fetisov ultimately wound up in the office of the Soviet Union’s Minister of Defense.

Fetisov joined the Devils in 1989. Three Cups later, in 2002, he returned to Russia at Putin’s request to become the country’s top sports official. He’s now a senator.

And he has few qualms with his country’s leader. In fact, Fetisov says, President Putin is “a good man.”

Yes, he concedes, the recent murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was a “very sad moment for everybody in the country,” but the self-professed member of Russia’s “elite” is clear that he is also a man of the people—who knows that dissenting voices are not silenced. “I know lots of (opposition leaders) who walk on the street without any problems,” he said.

And he has hope for the future. Americans and Russians, he says, despite the fiery rhetoric and violence of the Cold War, today’s increasingly distrustful diplomacy, and the enduring pain of a one-goal defeat (or thrill of victory) thirty-five years ago in Lake Placid, are far more similar than may first appear. “We look alike, we’ve got the same quality of life—family, the pride of the nation,” he said. “We closer than anybody to each other.”

As for the chance of a closer U.S-Russia relationship? “If you’re going to call this (a) ‘miracle,’" he said, "then I’m going to expect (a) second one.”