One of the greatest underdog stories in all of sports history is that of the Red Wings, specifically their decades long journey to the Stanley Cup in 1997. Steering the way to their win is a group of Russian immigrants known as “The Russian Five”. The “Five” include; Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov, Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov.
As Michigan-native and interviewee Jeff Daniels points out, hockey was something everyone in Detroit looked forward to as a way of escape. Hockey is and always has been one of Michigan’s most celebrated pastimes.
1980’s Detroit is not a fondly remembered time in Michigan history. It was a time where drugs became an epidemic, crime was flourishing and the Detroit Red Wings, then deemed the “Dead Wings” were the laughing stock of the NHL. Despite the loyalty of the blessed citizens of Michigan, hockey in Detroit was not where it had been previously.
In comes the so-called “Pizza King”, Mike Ilitch, owner of Little Caesars, to change things around. Ilitch brought in Jimmy Devellano to serve as the new General Manager in 1982. From there, Devellano and Wings exec, Jim Lites, began to hatch the idea of taking some of the best Hockey stars from Russia and bring them over to play for the Red Wings, which ended up changing the game of hockey forever.
Chronicling this epic saga is director and Port Huron native, Joshua Riehl. Bringing to life with a wide-eyed energy, Riehl delivers a documentary that although will be eaten up by Detroit Hockey fans, is sure play just as well with the average viewer.
The film essentially starts off as a Cold War-era espionage thriller with Jim Lites and Jimmy Devellano recounting the attempts of traveling to Russia and sneaking players out of the country. With many nail biting close-calls and near disasters, the film gets intense from the get go and hockey hasn’t even become the main subject yet. These accounts are made even more entertaining through some impressive dramatic illustrations, detailing the unbelievable encounters.
Starting with Sergei Fedorov, the line-up began to build one by one and throughout the years, the Red Wings worked their way from the bottom to the top. Thanks in large part to iconic coach Scotty Bowman, the Red Wings became America’s team before finally winning the Stanley Cup in 1997.
With insights from most of the aforementioned “Five” including legendary Wings captain Steve Yzerman and other Wings players Darren McCarty, Brenden Shanahan, the account of this time becomes extremely vivid and detailed.
Director Joshua Riehl portrays the story for what it is, a true underdog story. At a time when divides couldn’t be higher, Americans were forced to overlook decades long conflicts and see who their real teammates were. We’re all human, hence we all play for the same team. Things didn’t instantly change when these “Five” came to play. It took a few years for the team to gel and tensions to cool. There’s an interesting insight from Wayne Gretzky (briefly interviewed) pointing out how these guys didn’t care who the other team was, they just played in their own style that the NHL started to adapt over time.
It’s just as much about the titular men as it is the story of the Red Wings and how resilient of a team they’ve proven to be. The journey is inspiring, emotional and quite thrilling. Although the ending explores the tragic accident that nearly took the life of life of Vladimir Konstantinov, Riehl ends the film on a poignant, hopeful message of unity.
“The Russian Five” is an impeccable true story told exceptionally well. Capturing the spirit of Detroit Hockey isn’t an easy task, but director Riehl does it in strides. Much like the city of Detroit itself, “The Russian Five” is a story about never backing down despite facing great odds. This story of a group of immigrants becoming American heroes is a testament to the power of humanity and how if we all came together as a team, we all win in the end.