Share This Story!
Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about
The Russian Five is born: How iconic Red Wings changed hockey forever
The Russian Five changed the NHL from the moment the stepped on the ice together. And in the process they established a hockey empire in Detroit.
A link has been sent to your friend’s email address.
A link has been posted to your Facebook feed.
Remembering the impact of the Detroit Red Wings’ “Russian Five” more than 20 years ago. Ryan Ford, Detroit Free Press
In “The Russian Five: A story of espionage, defection, bribery and courage,” Keith Gave, the spy-turned-Detroit Free Press newsman whose clandestine mission to Helsinki, Finland, put the Red Wings’ acquisition of the iconic quintet in motion, shares the pulse-pounding and unforgettable tale of how Sergei Fedorov, Slava Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov and Igor Larionov slipped past the Iron Curtain, wound up in crumbling 1990s Detroit, helped build a championship empire and changed the landscape of American hockey forever. This excerpt of the new book, released March 20, is the final installment in a five-part series leading up to the Freep Film Festival, which opens with the world premiere of the “Russian Five” documentary on April 11 at Fillmore Detroit.
Detroit Red Wings television broadcaster Dave Strader knew he was witness to history in the National Hockey League on October 27, 1995, at Calgary’s Olympic Saddledome, and he had the presence of mind to do something about it.
When the game ended in a lopsided 3-0 Detroit victory, Strader carefully tucked away two copies of the final score sheet when he left the arena, intent on preserving a piece of that history.
Four months earlier, the Wings had advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, only to be humiliated in a four-game sweep by the New Jersey Devils. Nevertheless, expectations among fans and the media were sky-high once again.
But the new season began with a bit of a hangover. Detroit had won just four games, lost three and tied two in its first nine games that fall. Playing win-some-lose-some-tie-some hockey wasn’t quite what fans — or team management — had in mind. Change came swiftly and dramatically on that night in Calgary, when anyone on either bench or among the near sellout crowd of 19,001 could sense that a seismic shift had taken place in the NHL.
It happened in the early minutes of the game, when Detroit coach Scotty Bowman sent the first all-Russian five-man unit over the boards.
Newly acquired Igor Larionov was at center, flanked by Sergei Fedorov on one wing and Slava Kozlov on the other. On the blue line were two former Soviet national team captains, Slava Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov. International hockey was crashing the NHL party, and this would prove to be kryptonite against the long-held view — predominantly throughout Canada — that the more Europeans on a team the less likely it would succeed.
Wings executive Jim Devellano said he heard it in his own dressing room from one of his most reliable veterans, who was blunt in his warning about relying too much on imports: “You keep drafting them Europeans, Jimmy, and they’re soft,” the unidentified player said. “We’ll never win a Stanley Cup here with those guys.”
Larionov, one of the more analytical minds the game has seen, understood the significance of the moment in Calgary and what it meant for his country and the pride Soviet players and fans had in their game. The “Us vs. Them” rivalry between the Soviet Union and Canada was celebrated in both nations for its fury, always passionate and often brutal.
So, yes, Larionov acknowledged in a conversation with reporters hours before that game in Calgary, those five Soviet players carried no small burden into this historic moment.
“It’s a lot of pressure because it’s the first time in NHL history five Russian guys play on the same unit,” he said. “And, of course, it’s bigger pressure because it’s the Detroit Red Wings, one of the best teams in the National Hockey League.”
Fedorov, who moved from center to right wing when the Russians were united, was far less apprehensive.
“Why not?” he asked, responding to a question about whether an all-Russian unit could be successful in the NHL. “We definitely understand each other because we went to the same school, Red Army school. We know how to play with each other. And it seems to me we know what the coach wants from us. We stick with the team game plan, and hopefully we go from there.”
As it turned out, those five Russian players would revolutionize the brand of one of the oldest franchises in the NHL. Seemingly overnight, the Red Wings elevated their play to a level rarely witnessed in the league, breaking records and raising expectations sky-high.
To say this new five-man unit dominated that night in Calgary is a colossal understatement. And they did it with typical Soviet-style flair and elegance. On the game’s first goal at 10:06 of the opening period, the Russian Five transitioned from defense into offense so quickly that some Calgary players were still on the attack when the red light was flashing behind their goaltender.
Just seconds before, the Flames were moving the puck forward in the neutral zone beyond the center red line when Konstantinov pounced on a turnover in the Detroit zone and instinctively flipped a backhand pass to Fedorov at center ice.
In one fluid motion and without the slightest hesitation, Fedorov dished a no-look backhand pass to Kozlov, who already had done an about-face, turning toward the Calgary net at the far blue line. Fedorov’s pass hit Kozlov in stride, the puck landing on the blade of his stick, and there was nothing but enemy ice for 60 feet between him and helpless Flames goaltender Trevor Kidd. Kozlov sprinted in unmolested, and when his initial shot rebounded off Kidd’s pads he backhanded the puck into a yawning net for what stood as the game-winning goal.
With that single play, in a handful of seconds when the Wings looked like hockey’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters against a team of pylons, the National Hockey League was forever changed.
Led by the Russian Five in their “Soviet Re-Union” that night in Calgary, the Wings won, 3-0. Larionov also scored a goal. Fedorov earned his second assist. Bowman’s Russian unit recorded an astounding 15 of Detroit’s 25 shots on goal, while Calgary spent the night chasing the puck around the ice.
The Flames managed just eight shots on goal, a record low in the franchise’s history. Then again, it’s impossible to shoot the puck when the other team controlled it all night. That became the hallmark of Detroit Red Wings hockey that opponents have been trying to emulate ever since.
The day after the Russian Five’s debut, Strader tracked down the five Russians and asked them to sign both copies of the game summary. This wasn’t a 12-year-old autograph-seeker but a seasoned professional who, like most members of the media, wouldn’t dream of asking a player for his signature.
What Strader did that day underscored, and helped to preserve, what has become a significant moment in hockey history. He gave one of the sheets to Red Wings public relations director Bill Jamieson for the team’s archives.
The other? Strader had it more than two decades later when he was broadcasting Dallas Stars games. He called it one of his most cherished mementos of a distinguished career that earned him the 2017 Foster Hewitt Memorial Award and a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
A link has been posted to your Facebook feed.
Like this topic? You may also like these photo galleries:
- 1 of 74
- 2 of 74
- 3 of 74
- 4 of 74
- 5 of 74
- 6 of 74
- 7 of 74
- 8 of 74
- 9 of 74
- 10 of 74
- 11 of 74
- 12 of 74
- 13 of 74
- 14 of 74
- 15 of 74
- 16 of 74
- 17 of 74
- 18 of 74
- 19 of 74
- 20 of 74
- 21 of 74
- 22 of 74
- 23 of 74
- 24 of 74
- 25 of 74
- 26 of 74
- 27 of 74
- 28 of 74
- 29 of 74
- 30 of 74
- 31 of 74
- 32 of 74
- 33 of 74
- 34 of 74
- 35 of 74
- 36 of 74
- 37 of 74
- 38 of 74
- 39 of 74
- 40 of 74
- 41 of 74
- 42 of 74
- 43 of 74
- 44 of 74
- 45 of 74
- 46 of 74
- 47 of 74
- 48 of 74
- 49 of 74
- 50 of 74
- 51 of 74
- 52 of 74
- 53 of 74
- 54 of 74
- 55 of 74
- 56 of 74
- 57 of 74
- 58 of 74
- 59 of 74
- 60 of 74
- 61 of 74
- 62 of 74
- 63 of 74
- 64 of 74
- 65 of 74
- 66 of 74
- 67 of 74
- 68 of 74
- 69 of 74
- 70 of 74
- 71 of 74
- 72 of 74
- 73 of 74
- 74 of 74
♦ ♦ ♦
The Russian game, conceived by Anatoly Tarasov and handed down to this day, embraced imagination and resourcefulness — ingenuity with the puck that was virtually instinctive. How could five men work together in a way to advance the puck from one end of the rink to the other through five other men and create a scoring opportunity — without the opposing team even touching the puck? Larionov explained.
“When our line hit the ice, the puck is always on our sticks and everybody is moving to open areas so you’ve always got like two or three options to make a play,” he said. “Why give the puck away? There’s no reason to do that. No reason. Their goalie is just going to stop it behind the net, and then you’re going to waste like 30 seconds to chase after it and try to get it back.”
Better, as the Russians have said since they invented their own brand of ice hockey, to try to make a play, which is much simpler when all five guys on the ice are of the same mind. And as each of Detroit’s Russian Five has said repeatedly, it’s almost second nature when they are all from the same school — the Central Red Army Club of the Soviet Union. That program produced some of the best players ever to hold a hockey stick, including Larionov and Slava Fetisov
“Igor and Slava, they were always intact,” Sergei Fedorov recalled. “Remembering those guys, how they played defense and offense. They just communicated so well. Nothing really presented any danger to them. It was amazing chemistry. I’ve said many times, and I’m going to keep saying it: I was one of the luckiest hockey players ever to be a young guy on that (Red Army) team and see what those guys did day in and day out, two hours in practice, sometimes four hours in a row, day in and day out. That’s probably why I had a chance to become that hockey player I was throughout my career.”
Larionov was the last of the five former Soviets to join the Red Wings, and arguably the most important. He was also known as the switch — the one who really made the Russian Five go. He played the ice surface as though it were a giant chess board and he was always thinking three, four, five moves ahead — like the greatest players always did.
“It’s all about breaking down the pieces, you know creativity and improvisation,” he said. “You start five against five, so you have to beat one guy to make it five against four, you kind of break down any defense — and it’s fun because everything is clicking. Then you try to make it four against three, three against two – always with the advantage.
“To do that, you have to be constantly moving. That’s how we play. Sometimes make five, six passes, short passes, give-and-go, to make a big difference. Everything is clicking. We got chemistry going, and for us, we just enjoy every minute.”
Inevitably, there is a defensive breakdown. Maybe two. Chaos ensues and the Russians have a serious advantage. That’s when the fun really begins.
“All of a sudden, somebody — and it can be anybody from our line — maybe has a breakaway,” Larionov said. “How many breakaways did Konstantinov have? And he was a defenseman, you know? And he had maybe one or two a game. That was unheard of in those years.”
It was also cause for the occasional belly laugh for players on the bench – given the right moment, as left wing Brendan Shanahan recalled.
“Suddenly, inexplicably, it was Konstantinov on a breakaway going forehand-backhand to score,” Shanahan said. “And we’d be thinking, ‘What is he doing up there?’ Or we’d see Konstantinov and Fetisov going in together, and we’d sit there laughing. ‘Yep, there’s our two defenseman having a two-on-one break.’ The Russians didn’t always score, but they always had the puck.”
Bowman was careful about over-deploying his Russian unit. To do so would risk overexposure, giving opposing coaches more opportunity to design effective defenses against them.
“When they first started playing together, I said, ‘Wow. Whatever they’re doing, they’re not doing it like we do, you know?’ ” Bowman said. “They were like an offensive machine. The way they played, it’s like all great offensive players: If the other team can figure it out, there’s a risk they could capitalize.
“So we tried to use them at the right time, when things were not going according to what we wanted. They were game-changers as a unit.”
The Russians were Detroit’s nuclear option.
♦ ♦ ♦
When Steve Yzerman finished his long-anticipated victory lap around Joe Louis Arena and turned to his teammates, he had no idea that what he was about to do would have such historic significance and global implications for the sport of hockey. It just turned out that way.
The captain of a the newly crowned NHL champion skating around the ice with the Stanley Cup over his head — grinning in a way that shows he had sacrificed some teeth at the altar of the game he loves – is one of the most iconic images in sports.
Coincidentally, this is a tradition that began in Detroit in 1952. That year, the Red Wings swept Montreal in four games. Until then, the presentation of the trophy to the new champions had been a rather formal event. Whoever ran the league would present the trophy to the captain of the winning team, who would carry it into the locker room for a private celebration — and the hockey season was over.
But Detroit Red Wings captain Ted Lindsay changed that forever when NHL President Clarence Campbell presented the Stanley Cup and Lindsay immediately raised it over his head and waltzed it across the Olympia Stadium ice.
Lindsay explained later that he did it so that fans could get a better view of the trophy. He was sharing the moment with the most important people in the building. It’s been that way ever since. But over the past generation or so, the tradition has taken on a level of intense speculation. It now involves a question whose answer can reveal much about a team: Which player gets the Stanley Cup when the captain finishes his victory lap?
So after Yzerman took his lap and skated briefly over to the bench so owner Mike Ilitch could lift the trophy over his head to a thunderous roar, all eyes were on who got the Cup next.
On June 7, 1997, the Red Wings captain left no doubt about how he and his teammates felt about one man when he approached Slava Fetisov, the 39-year-old former captain of the Soviet Red Army club, and presented him the trophy.
With that single, thoughtful gesture, Yzerman once and forever validated the presence of Russians in the NHL and extinguished the incessant and patently prejudicial whispering campaign that insisted teams led by Russians could never win the Stanley Cup. No more.
“None of us had spoken to Steve about it, and I think he just made the decision on his own,” left wing Brendan Shanahan said, “but it was so fitting – and just. For me it was like going back to being a 19-year-old kid again and watching Slava Fetisov come over, looking up to him so much and seeing how he was mistreated in so many ways.”
Fetisov is a man well aware of his place in hockey history, but that perfect moment nearly overwhelmed him.
“The captain — my captain — he gave it to me,” Fetisov said. “It is not describable, this moment. It was very much special.”
As Yzerman handed him the trophy, Fetisov knew what he had to do.
“I started thinking about Igor,” Fetisov said. “I was thinking maybe we can share this moment together, instead of going around by myself. So I said, ‘Igor, let’s go.’ ”
And they did, two fabled Soviet teammates skated around the rink with the Stanley Cup, showered by as much love and adoration from Detroit hockey fans as Yzerman, Lindsay or Gordie Howe ever got before them.
“I’ve been playing professional hockey for 20 years,” Igor Larionov said at the time, “and this is the happiest day in my life.”
Sergei Fedorov will never forget that moment and what it meant to him.
“Respect,” he said. “Respect! It was the first Cup for the Red Wings in a long time, and it was the first Cup for a bunch of Russian players skating on an NHL team. I’m so glad Stevie did that. I would never have thought of that in a million years. And when Slava asked Igor to join him. . . They were friends forever.”
The moment was awfully important 4,800 or so miles to the east, around the headquarters of the Central Red Army Club, and to its fans throughout Russia.
“Those years when all five of us played together in Detroit, there was a huge wave of interest in the National Hockey League,” Larionov said. “When we were playing in Russia, we also wore the red uniform. We were the ‘Big Red Machine.’ In Detroit, we play for the Red Wings and when we were playing for the Cup the games were televised back home — at 3 o’clock in the morning, and many people were watching the games.
“It generated huge interest. So the Detroit Red Wings became like, the people’s team back home.”
At the post-game news conference, Fetisov was beaming when he raised a plastic cup of champagne and toasted the assembled flock of reporters.
“Cheers, guys,” he said. “I wait 39 years for this moment. For me to find the Cup now, almost at the end of the career, was probably a gift from above.”
He added that promenading the Stanley Cup around the ice with his Red Army and Red Wings partner, Igor Larionov, “is something I will be remembering for the rest of the life.”
So will Grind Line center Kris Draper, who can replay the moment in his mind’s eye with perfect clarity.
“Stevie skated the Cup over to Slava, and Slava motioned Igor to come. He wanted to do that lap together and, you know, that kind of gives me chills right now just talking about it, the excitement of it,” Draper said. “You can only imagine everything that those two guys had been part of together, playing for the famed Red Army team and going through what they did to get over here.
“I would have to imagine that in the ’70s and ’80s, you knew these guys were going to win world championships. You knew they were going to win Olympic gold medals. You probably never would have thought they were going to be Stanley Cup champions one day. But, sure enough, they did. Here they were, in Detroit, ending a drought and being able to call themselves Stanley Cup champions.”
Keith Gave spent six years in the United States Army as a Russian linguist during the Cold War, then transitioned into a career as a sports writer covering hockey for the Detroit Free Press. His 15 years with the newspaper were the highlight of his 40-year career in the news industry, which included stops at The Associated Press and Dallas Morning News. Gave resides in Roscommon, where he continues to write. Follow him on Twitter @KeithGave.
How to buy the book
What: ”The Russian Five: A story of espionage, defection, bribery and courage”
Publisher: Gold Star Publishing, Ann Arbor.
Release date: March 20.
- How Detroit Red Wings icon Gordie Howe became beloved 'Mr. Hockey'
- After son's death, Red Wings announcer Ken Daniels joins opioid fight
- Wings dream of winning lottery, landing Rasmus Dahlin
- Russian ice hockey legend Viacheslav Fetisov turns 60
- 'The Russian Five' and 'Mister Rogers' documentaries win Freep Film Festival awards
- Baumgardner to play junior hockey in Canada
- Royal baby: What it means to be born a prince in the 21st Century
- Gorkha Icon – Late INA Capt. Ram Singh Thakuri
- Sabres win National Hockey League draft lottery, to get top pick
- Ferrari voted against the aerodynamic rule changes for 2019
- 'May Day!' 'May Day!' 25 years ago today, iconic Sabres rallying cry was born
- The undying Asian gay icon in red high heels
The Russian Five is born: How iconic Red Wings changed hockey forever have 6001 words, post on www.freep.com at March 13, 2018. This is cached page on Talk Vietnam. If you want remove this page, please contact us.