The story of the Red Wings and the Russian Five
The Russian Five are legendary in the NHL and Detroit hockey.
Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Fetisov and Slava Kozlov changed the way hockey was played in the U.S. and helped to erase doubts about the ability of Europeans to play the game the right way.
They also helped the Red Wings bring the Stanley Cup back to Detroit after a 42-year absence.
And most fans had no idea what it took to get them here.
“The Russian Five: A story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery and Courage,” a recent book by Keith Gave, who covered the Wings for the Detroit Free Press in the late 1980s and ’90s, tells the complicated stories of how the Russian Five got to Detroit.
In addition, a documentary based on the book by Port Huron native Joshua Riehl debuted at the Freep Film Festival in mid-April.
Their story of leaving Russia and reuniting in the Motor City is a story of espionage, intrigue and danger that rivals any spy story.
First came Fedorov
The Red Wings secretly spirited Fedorov, whom they had drafted in 1989, away from the Soviet Union National Junior team in 1990, when the team was in Seattle to compete in the Goodwill Games.
It took even more to get Konstantinov, who was also drafted in 1989, out of Russia a year later. The feisty, physical and talented defenseman was able to leave the Soviet Union and join the Red Wings only after a bribery-fueled scheme (at least $60,000 worth) in which he faked having cancer.
The plan was almost thwarted when all of Konstantinov’s necessary papers – many that had been obtained with the bribes – were stolen out of a car.
Kozlov, the youngest of the quintet who was drafted in 1990, was easier to get out of Russia in part because he was seriously injured when the car he was driving was involved in an accident that killed his passenger, a teammate of his, in October 1991. Kozlov recovered and made his NHL debut with the Red Wings six months later.
Fetisov and Larionov had shaken the very roots of the Soviet Union’s sports system when they demanded to be allowed to leave Russia and play in the NHL during the 1980s and the Cold War. They finally succeeded when Fetisov joined the New Jersey Devils (who had drafted him in 1983, five years after he was originally drafted by Montreal) and Larionov joined the Vancouver Canucks (who had drafted him in 1985) for the 1989-90 season. Fetisov was 31 and Larionov 28 when they finally laced up their skates in the NHL.
Fetisov came to Detroit in a trade with the Devils during the strike-shortened 1995 season.
The final ingredient was Larionov, who was acquired from the San Jose Sharks for right wing Ray Sheppard early in the 1995-96 season.
“At that time, we had too many right wings,” then-head coach Scotty Bowman told NHL.com in 2015. “The Sharks gave me a massive list of players to choose from in exchange for Sheppard. I wasn’t looking for a center, but when I saw Larionov’s name, I thought that it would be great to get a player with such enormous hockey IQ and put all five Russian guys together.”
A new strategy – five together
Playing all five together was a new strategy in the NHL. In Soviet and Russian hockey, the same three forwards and two defensemen played as one unit and changed wholesale during each shift change. That compares to the North American style in which any forward line can be on the ice with any defense pair at any given time during a game.
On the Soviet National and Central Red Army teams, Larionov and Fetisov had already been a part of what most considered the greatest five-man unit in hockey history. Larionov centered with left winger Vkadimir Krutov and right winger Sergei Makarov, while Fetisov was partnered with Alexei Kasatonov on defense.
Before the five donned Wings jerseys, most NHL teams played a simple dump and chase game that dominated the 1990s.
But the Russians successful introduced a combination of skating, puck control and speed principles that had allowed the Soviet Union to dominate international hockey for three decades.
The Russian Five made its Red Wing debut on Oct. 27, 1995, and accounted for two of the goals (Kozlov and Larionov) in the Red Wings’ 3-0 win over the Calgary Flames in Calgary.
The unit, in which Larionov played center and Fedorov, a natural center, played right wing, led Detroit to an NHL-record 62 wins in 1995-96 and 131 points, just shy of the Montreal Canadiens’ record of 132, set during the 1976-77 season.
The Wings lost in the 1996 Western Conference Finals but won the Stanley Cup in 1997.
“My main trick was not to unite all five Russian every time,” Bowman said. “I was worried that the opponents would be able to figure out how to play against them. Often, I would wait to the second or even third period to get them out on the ice together. It always got other teams confused.”
Confusing the other guys
Also mind-blowing was how Fedorov and Kozlov played their wing positions, freely switching sides whenever play dictated. Up until then, left and right wings stayed on their own side of the ice.
“When those five guys were on the ice, opponents didn’t know how to play against them,” Detroit general manager Ken Holland said. “I remember Larionov and his linemates always saying that if you have the puck, you control the game. They came from the same school of hockey and shared a similar mentality. They understood each other perfectly.”
Fedorov expanded on the subject.
“We played the style of hockey that we understood and enjoyed,” he said. “I remember often when we were on the ice, we would spend most of the time in the offensive zone. We dominated the game because this style was unusual at that time and teams didn’t know how to defend against the guys who constantly move the puck around.”
Fedorov was the quintet’s best all-around player, fastest skater and top sniper. Larionov was the playmaking genius, Kozlov a quiet, sneaky sniper who had a penchant for scoring big goals, Konstantinov the physical presence and Fetisov a solid, all-around defenseman.
Fetisov, Larionov and Konstantinov all played the game with a warrior’s mentality.
Their final game
The Russian Five’s final game together was Game 4 of the 1997 Stanley Cup Final at Joe Louis, in which Detroit beat the Philadelphia Flyers to complete a series sweep. Besides being the Red Wings’ first time winning the cup in 42 years, the victory also helped to dispell the belief held by many in the NHL that Europeans – particularly Russians – did not have the grit or the heart to win it all.
What followed was nothing short of a tragedy that cut short what could have been years of Red Wing success with the Russian Five. Only six days after the Cup victory, Konstantinov’s career ended when a limousine carrying him, Fetisov and and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov home from a party hit a tree. Konstantinov would never skate again.
Fetisov suffered serious injuries but recovered in time for the 1997-98 season. He and Fedorov, Larionov and Kozlov helped the Wings become the first team since the New York Islanders in the early 1980s, to win consecutive Stanley Cups in a four-game sweep of the Washington Capitals.
After the captain Steve Yzerman had hoisted the Cup, Konstantinov was wheeled onto the ice at the MCI Center in Washington. Yzerman placed the Cup in Konstantinov’s lap, and the former Russian warrior was pushed around the ice with Red Wings either beside or behind him.
Fetisov retired after the 1997-98 season and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001. He was an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils, was the GM of the 2002 Russian Olympic Team, served as Russia’s Minister of Sport and is currently a member of the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, founder and chairman on the Kontinental Hockey League’s Board of Directors and the chair of the World Anti-Doping Agency Athletes Committee.
Kozlov remained a Red Wing until he was dealt to the Buffalo Sabres in the deal that brought Dominik Hasek to Detroit in the summer of 2001. He spent one season with the Sabres before playing with the Atlanta Thrashers (now Winnipeg Jets) through the 2009-10 season. He then played five seasons in the KHL before retiring after the 2014-15 season.
He is the uncle of New York Rangers forward Vladislav Namestnikov.
Larionov signed as a free agent with the Florida Panthers in the summer of 2000, but was dealt back to Detroit during the 2000-01 season. He and Fedorov helped the Wings win the 2002 Stanley Cup.
Both left Detroit after the 2002-03 season. Fedorov signed as a free agent with the Anaheim Ducks, and Larionov played one season with New Jersey before retiring. He was inducted into the Hall of Famed in 2008 and today is a player agent based in suburban Detroit.
Fedorov played 1 seasons in Anaheim, parts of three seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, parts of two with the Washington Capitals and three seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League before retiring after the 2011-12 season.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015. Today he is the general manager of CSKA Moscow of the KHL. His 400 goals with the Red Wings ranks him fourth overall for the franchise.