If you live long enough, movies start to look familiar. They call them “historical documentaries.”
I call them memories.
Tonight, the film “The Russian Five” debuts at the Freep Film Festival. It’s a sold-out event, befitting the subject, because the five hockey players it chronicles, Slava Fetisov, Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Slava Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov, were always worth the price of admission.
I know. I was lucky enough to be there when they all joined the Red Wings — and mad professor Scotty Bowman had the idea of playing them all at the same time.
In truth, there had been a “Russian Five” unit before, in Russia, actually, in the 1980s, with Fetisov and Larionov part of the group. They played together on Soviet national teams as well as for CSKA Moscow.
Then the NHL widened its doors for Russian players. And one by one, these men made the pilgrimage from one corner of the world to the next. It wasn’t easy. They waited years, or they defected. One, Konstantinov, even faked like he was dying to get out of his Soviet obligations.
But once assembled, their collected greatness was an inevitability. And it happened in Detroit uniforms. When Bowman sent those five over the boards together — on Oct. 27, 1995, in the Calgary Saddledome, during the 10th game of the season and just a few days after Larionov had joined the team — thunder clapped, the history books flung open, and a new chapter in NHL history was penned.
The Wings won that game, 3-0. The Russian unit scored two of thee goals. More importantly, Bowman was rewarded for his trust in the savvy leadership of the older Larionov and Fetisov, blended with the youthful mix of speed, finesse and muscle that Fedorov, Kozlov and Konstantinov represented.
“It was just beautiful to watch,” Jim Devellano, then the Wings’ GM, told Keith Gave in his fine book on the subject, “The Russian Five: A story of espionage, defection, bribery and courage.” “Every pass was tape to tape. They knew where everybody else was. They showed us the pride of the Russians.”
A hockey quintet we’d never seen
Imagine coming to a foreign country, leaving all you knew behind, moving to a new culture, a new home, a new work place — then discovering the guys you most admired back home were working in the same office!
That’s sort of what Fedorov, Kozlov and Konstantinov went through, seeing the professorial Larionov and the stately Fetisov wearing the same Detroit uniforms as they did. In a television interview from that time on Fox, when all five men sat on stools and were interviewed together, you can see the respect the younger ex-Soviets felt toward the older. When the interviewer asked Kozlov, then in his mid-20s, if it felt like he was skating with his brothers, he grinned and said, “like fathers.”
But that was accurate. And the respect the Soviet system instilled in them, I believe, molded that unit as much as their physical skill. The Russian Five became what they became because they believed in one another. They skated their roots. They skated their belief system. They glided with a sort of nationalistic pride that was not present when they were mixed with their Canadian, American or European teammates. It was almost as if they were saying, “Oh, yeah, watch this, this is how they teach us to move back home. You guys don’t have this here.”
And we didn’t. I was watching a lot of hockey back in those days. I can tell you I never saw a unit move together the way the Russian Five did. Maybe a line. Maybe two guys who knew each other well. But never all five players at once. The defensemen melded with the forwards. The center and wings blurred together. The “Ov’s,” as they were known, skated a version of the Harlem Globetrotters’ weave that would leave basketball fans cheering.
In their hands, the puck was as safe as a cub under the belly of the biggest lion in the jungle. As Ken Holland told the media many times, most nights with the Russian Five, it wasn’t whether the Wings were going to win or not, but by how much. They held onto the puck forever. Sometimes you’d wonder if they were ever going to move forward, so meticulous were they in establishing the perfect path up the ice.
But once they were aligned, look out. Like a bee that circles you until you’re dizzy, they went straight in for the kill, tape to tape, until the puck was in the net.
Gone like a phoenix from the ashes
And then there were the personalities. Just as fans once slotted the Beatles into “the cute one,” “the serious one,” etc., the Russian Five were easy to classify once you got to know them. Larionov was the professor, thoughtful, loquacious, rarely rattled, often philosophical. Slava Kozlov was shy, deferential. Sergei Fedorov was a rock star, an Adonis with flowing blond hair and the occasional white skates. Fetisov was as quiet as a face on a coin; but as the oldest, he commanded the most respect. And Konstantinov, who often looked like he’d just finished a fight, was never afraid to start one. He was sly, sardonic, and happy to prove that Russian hockey players weren’t all about finesse and discipline. He wasn’t called the Vladinator for nothing.
Together, they were bigger than even the sum of their personalities. But while members of the Russian Five dotted the Red Wings roster from 1990 until 2003, the quintet only performed for less than two seasons.
Hard to believe, but true. The experiment, begun in late 1995, culminated in a Stanley Cup in June 1997, the first Cup in Detroit in 50-plus years. And the night of that championship, the players posing with cigars in their mouths, you would never have thought you’d have seen the end of the Russian Five.
But six nights later, it became official. Konstantinov and Fetisov — along with team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov — were victims in a tragic limousine crash. We all recall it. Even 20-plus years later, it still stings the memory banks.
Konstantinov never played again. Fetisov lasted one more season in America. The last time all five of them were together on the ice in a meaningful way was the night the Wings won their second Stanley Cup in two years, 1998, when Steve Yzerman handed the revered trophy to a wheelchair-bound Vladdie, to the roar of the Detroit fans in Washington.
And then, like a phoenix from the ashes, they were gone.
Will there ever be another group like this? I will say no for this reason: The world is getting flatter. Players born in one country regularly star in another now. Barriers to transferring your skills internationally are not like the Iron Curtain or Cold War days. You can get there from here. You can get here from there.
So five players trained in the same system, ranging from early 20s to mid-30s, crossing a border (in most cases, at their own peril) and landing on a single team at a single time — and winning a championship in a brief window? — well, sorry, that just doesn’t happen every day.
They call that a great story. It’s the reason a film will roll tonight at the festival. But those of us blessed to have been there for the Russian Five can do something even better than ease into a chair for a viewing. We can close our eyes and still see it. What a quintet it was.