The Russian Five

Review by Willard Manus

THE RUSSIAN FIVE tells the compelling and fascinating story of the five Russian hockey players who came to fame in the NHL in the 1990s, winning the Stanley Cup and bringing much-needed hope and pride to the beleaguered city of Detroit.

You needn't be a hockey fan to enjoy this film, just someone who likes to root for the underdog. Because that's what Detroit was in the last years of the 20th century, a lost-cause metropolis with an abandoned industrial base, burned-out neighborhoods and severe racial problems. Its once-vaunted hockey team, the Red Wings, known locally as the Dead Wings, had not made the playoffs in ten years.

All that changed when a new owner, pizza magnate Mickey Illitch, bought the franchise and hired Jimmy Devellano as his general manager. Devellano, a streetwise old pro, drafted some fine young players (like Steve Yzerman) to improve the Red Wings' chances but realized he still needed a bunch of skilled vets to compete. Where to find them, though?

The top NHL players were not about to cast their lot with a last-place team. So, out of desperation, he turned to the Russian Hockey Federation, the Soviet Union's major league, for help. Teams from the RHF were stocked with excellent players who had won numerous European and Olympic medals; was there any reason they couldn't be successful in the NHL?

"The answer was a no-brainer," said Devellano, who came up with a short list of star players, at the top of which was a high-scorer named Sergei Federov. He drafted Federov in 1989 knowing all the while that Russia would not allow its state-trained players to leave the motherland and play for its Cold War enemy, the USA. Devellano had to concoct a secret plan worthy of the CIA--false papers, cash bribes, safe houses, etc.--to be able to smuggle Federov to the West.

Thanks to Gorbachev's reformist policies, it became easier in the early 1990s to bring four more Russian players legally to Detroit: Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov, Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov (better known as The Professor for his canny knowledge of the game). Teamed with Federov, they turned the Red Wings' fortunes around with their dazzling play, which featured precision passing and shooting. The Red Wings made the playoffs but it wasn't until Devellano signed the right coach, Scotty Bowman, that the team became good enough to win the 1996-97 Stanley Cup.

By then the city of Detroit had taken the Russian Five to its heart. Morale soared, all games were sold out, and when the team became champions, the city reveled in victory. Over a million people poured into the city's long-deserted downtown for parades and parties.

THE RUSSIAN FIVE does a skillful job of charting the Red Wings' return to prominence, but where the film truly excels is in its human portraits. Director Joshua Riehl, a Detroit native, gets up close and personal with the documentary's heroes: Devellano and Illitch, the Russian players and their American teammates, Steve Yzerman and Darren McCarty. Another of the important talking heads is a celebrity fan, the actor Jeff Daniels. What comes through most vividly is how difficult it was for the Russian Five to adjust to life in the West, where language and culture were so different. They also had to face hostility--and dirty tricks--from some of the other players in the NHL, one of whom sucker-punched Federov and put him in the hospital with a concussion.

"Russians can't take it, they're too soft," was the word around the league--until Bowman trained The Five harder and challenged them to stand up to the bullies. Things were resolved in 1997 when Detroit and Colorado got into a mass brawl during the playoffs. The Red Wings were the last man standing...and ultimately went on to win the big prize.

From that peak, the Russian Five took a sudden dive when a car accident resulted in a severe injury to Vlad Konstantinov. Paralyzed from the waist down, he never played hockey again, but the final image in the film is of him in a wheelchair surrounded by teammates and holding aloft the Stanley Cup they won for him.

(A Gold Star Films production)