The Russian Five

Almost 60 years ago the world became aware that Russia was a dominant hockey power. The Russian team was stacked with talent. Because they were powerful and rather mysterious, the Russians became the enemy on the ice for Canadians and Americans. Part of that was envy due to the fact that they were so successful. As such, the two were going to inevitably meet as the NHL teams wanted the talent Russian players brought and Russian players wanted the money being an NHL player meant.

The Detroit Red Wings are an original six NHL team. Part of hockey’s most esteemed teams. While they were good early with teams comprised of players like Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Marcel Pronovost, Terry Sawchuck, and Red Kelly. After their win of the Stanley Cup, the organization’s seventh, in 1955 decades of dry years followed. For a city that calls itself Hockeytown that just wouldn’t do. From the late 60s until the early 80s it was so bad that they began to be known as the Dead Wings. Fans were frustrated.

As the 80s began a new strategy was put in place. First, was in 1982 when Mike Illich, owner of Little Caesar’s Pizza, bought the team. In 1983 they selected Steve Yzerman first overall. Jim Devallano was brought in as the general manager and this non traditional type began quietly carving out a new strategy.

That strategy was to draft Russian players. Most NHL teams would not waste draft picks on Russians as they would not come to North America. Devallano risked third round or later picks on Russian stars. He began accumulating Russian stars like Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, and acquired Sergei Larionov (from San Jose Sharks) and Viazheslav Fetisov (New Jersey Devils) via trade.

Devallano then made a power move by hiring decorated and respected coach Scotty Bowman, formerly of the St. Louis Blues, Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres, and Pittsburgh Penguins. Bowman had won six Stanley Cups up to that point.

In his second season with the team, Bowman decided that he would replicate what the Russian national and club teams did and play all five of his Russian players together as a unit. Quickly, as they brought the speed and puck possession Russian teams were known for, they became known as the Russian Five. They clicked immediately and began driving the Red Wings back to their glory days of Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay.

Finally, 42 years after their last Stanley Cup, in 1997 they won the Cup. The euphoria of the Cup win in 1997 came to a sudden halt when six days after tragedy struck in the form of a car crash. The limo which was driving Fetisov and Konstantinov crashed into a tree. All were injured with Konstantinov being the worst. He would be in a coma for a while and had serious head injuries and paralysis.

While Konstantinov would never play again due to his injuries, the team continued to be successful. They won the Stanley Cup once again in 1998. In the late 90s and early 2000s they retook their place as one of the most successful teams in the entire NHL. Much of the credit for that success was given to the Russian Five and it was acknowledged that their style of play brought about a change in the way NHL teams built their teams along with the way the game was played on ice.

Though this is basically a hockey documentary you also get some culture and politics. It gives us a picture of sports through the lens of the Cold War. How these Russians players were able to get to the NHL from behind the Iron Curtain. It was rather cloak and dagger stuff. More like what you would see in a spy flick. Through all this we get to see a part of the world and its culture we don’t usually get to see in a hockey documentary.

Definite must if you are a Detroit Red Wings fan, but also should be of interest to all hockey fans as the story is interesting and part of a change of style in the NHL.

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