By the early 1990s, Detroit was a sad shadow of its 1960s industrial glory, but it was still represented a quantum increase in the potential living standards for Russia’s top hockey players. That really ought to be the final word on the Soviet Socialist experiment. Of course, it was not just their economic freedoms that were curtailed. The USSR tightly controlled their travel and maintained intrusive surveillance, especially when they might come in contact with Westerners. Nevertheless, the Detroit Red Wings managed to draft, sign, and suit-up some the best players produced by the Soviet hockey machine. The resulting Motor City sports history is chronicled in Joshua Riehl’s The Russian Five, which opens today in New York.
Sergei Fedorov was the first Russian player to join the Red Wings, after they helped facilitate his defection following an exhibition match sponsored by the Goodwill Games (that was probably the first time Ted Turner’s pet project made headlines, but it most likely wasn’t what he had in mind). The team also caused a bit of an international incident when they brought over Vladimir Konstantinov and his family, by way of Hungary, where they had already chucked Communism into the dustbin of history. However, it was a relatively easy process adding Vyacheslaw Kozlov to the roster, while Viacheslav Fetisov and Igor Larionov were acquired the old-fashioned way—through trades.
Together they were the Russian Five and they ignited the cellar-dwelling Red Wings. Not surprisingly, they were highly compatible on the ice. They racked up W’s during the regular season, but for several years, they experienced all sorts of heartache during the playoffs.
Like any good sports doc, The Russian Five has triumph and tragedy, as well as a seriously villainous rival in the form of the Colorado Avalanche. Even if you have no interest in hockey, you will still get caught up in the drama. This is the kind of film that is perfect for fans of ESPN’s 30 for 30 and HBO’s Real Sports. Obviously, there are also geopolitical implications to the story, but Riehl does his best to soft pedal them. This could well be a function of the subjects themselves, including Fetisov, who served as Putin’s minister of sport and a principle architect of the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Nonetheless, there is absolutely no denying which side of the Iron Curtain had the best opportunities for players. Riehl uses some entertaining animated sequences to help tell the tale, but the liveliest episodes involve the team’s wild forays into international relations. He has lengthy on-camera sit-downs with all four of the Russian Five who are still available for media, as well as former Red Wings GM Jim Devellano and many of their fellow players, including team captain Steve Yzerman, who gets credit for being an equally important addition to the team and Darren McCarty, who can tell hockey war stories with the best of them. Jeff Daniels the actor also pops up from time to time, because he is apparently the Red Wings’ most famous fan.
You might expect Riehl’s film would overlap considerably with Gabe Polsky’s Red Army, but the Detroit focus makes it almost entirely new and completely fresh for fans of Russian hockey docs. Even though it is not about the Rangers, it is still quite watchable and engaging. Easily recommended for athletically-inclined viewers, especially those interested in how sports and culture relate and respond to each other, The Russian Five opens today (5/31) in New York, at the IFC Center.