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.
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?
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.
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)