Literally—we’re making it up as we go along.
While everyone hates division rivals when it comes to loving the Buffalo Sabres, I don’t necessarily care. They despise Toronto, loathe Boston, and dislike Montreal. Hartford earned ire when they had a team and Ottawa too upon coming back into the league. For me, though, it was always different. Because Toronto was in the Western conference when I started watching hockey, I actually liked them. And I still kind of do despite their switch to the East in 1998. Conversely, however, the only team I’ve ever truly abhorred was another non-conference team: the Detroit Red Wings. Why? They were too good. They were perennial Cup contenders when I was growing up and all the greatest players seemed to find their way to the Motor City. It wasn’t “fair.”
In my mind they bought the best like baseball’s New York Yankees. I thought this because I wasn’t aware of what building a team meant in the early 1990s. And since I wasn’t in Detroit or a bigger hockey fan beyond cheering my hometown team then, I didn’t acknowledge the risks being taken. That’s what Joshua Riehl‘s documentary The Russian Five provides: context. What did it mean to draft behind the Iron Curtain? What did it mean to trade a 40-goal scorer like Ray Sheppard for a 35-year old Igor Larionov? So while I’ll never stop hating the Red Wings (especially after their own move to the East), I can’t help appreciating and respecting what the organization did to change the league’s entire landscape through its astronomical rise.
Uncertainty ruled the day when Little Caesars magnate Mike Ilitch bought the team in 1982 and hired Jim Devellano as general manager, realizing how integral the former New York Islanders scout was to building a team that won four straight championships (the fourth with him as assistant GM) before jumping ship. They’d draft Steve Yzerman the next year, dabble in Europe with the likes of Petr Klíma, and eventually pull the trigger on their first Soviet-born player with Sergei Fedorov in the 1989 draft’s fourth round. This made them a laughing stock to some because it was just one round after Nicklas Lidström (guaranteed to play) and two rounds before Vancouver’s Pavel Bure (who similarly needed defection). After adding Vladimir Konstantinov in round eleven, the rest became history.
With a mix of interviews by those involved like Devellano, Fedorov, Jim Lites and reporter Keith Gave (author of The Russian Five: A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery and Courage), archival footage, and animated reenactments of clandestine interactions, we quickly understand exactly how dramatic this plan to “steal” players was. That they were recruiting for the team of a blue-collar city whose fans thought of Russian athletes as “soft” only made it all the more unlikely of succeeding. You had North American players fearing they’d be out of jobs, a language barrier that was only exceeded by a cultural one, and a team unsure of how to integrate everything together. In the end it wasn’t just Scotty Bowman who turned things around. The players had to buy-in too.
Riehl takes us beyond the defection of Fedorov, Konstantinov, and Vyacheslav Kozlov to the unorthodox trades for Viacheslav Fetisov and Larionov. From there comes the philosophy change of the coaching staff, the patience of ownership despite a city crying for people’s heads after losing the Stanley Cup final, and Claude Lemieux’s cheap shot on Kris Draper that ultimately galvanized their melting pot of a dressing room into a family more than a decade after Devellano’s plan began. The film takes pains to also highlight the circuitous connections along the way (Larionov’s San Jose Sharks chasing Detroit out of the playoffs, Fetisov facing the sting of losing to his former team, and the Red Wings putting the nail in Patrick Roy’s Montreal coffin). The word destiny can’t be avoided.
It’s an exhilarating ride through the team’s many ups and downs with excitement (Fedorov’s defection), education (Fetisov and Larionov arriving as elder statesmen), and perseverance. We get an inside look at the players’ personalities too whether everyone talking about Konstantinov’s sense of humor despite thinking he’d be the hard-nosed Communist they’d need to convince or Kozlov’s refusal to speak English for the documentary cementing what many already know about him being “difficult” (Buffalo residents saw it first-hand during his brief, cantankerous stint here). There’s Red Wings super-fan Jeff Daniels reminiscing, Wayne Gretzky lamenting the difficulty of lining up opposite that stellar team, and Darren McCarty holding nothing back with the sort of hilarious anecdotes you’d expect from an iconic depth forward like him. Riehl goes all-in.
That the experiment of the title did end tragically (something I honestly forgot in the two decades since) only helps prove how important this team’s accomplishments were. To also shine a light on the Detroit fans that changed their tune post-Cold War in realizing these Russians wanted the Cup as much as they did and would throw their bodies around while playing through pain to get it makes it even more special. There’s no quicker way to changing hearts and minds than a common goal and sports have often served as an avenue towards such tolerance (regardless of how artificially it starts or continues). The Russian Five’s talent absolutely transformed the NHL into the skill game it’s become since the 2004-05 lockout. That’s true impact nobody can deny.