From Russia with Love
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s created a seismic shift in international politics. The Cold War ended, and the United States was the world’s only surviving superpower. The post-1991 world was a far different place than the pre-1991 world. The threat of nuclear war subsided, maps looked different, and the world of sports changed as well. Athletes that were previously forced to defect or get permission from communist governments to play in the West were now free to leave their native countries. Of the four major North American sports, hockey was affected the most.
Eastern Europeans were not unknown in the NHL before the fall of the Iron Curtain, but they were somewhat uncommon. Only one Russian-born player spent any time in the NHL in the 1988-89 season – Sergei Pryakhin – and he played in only two games. Five years later, the number of Russians playing in the world’s top league had surpassed 50. Similar (those less extreme) increases in the number of Czech and Slovak players also took place.
The Detroit Red Wings were one team that took full advantage of the influx of new players, though they had already begun to do so before the fall of the USSR. In the 1989 entry draft, Detroit chose Sergei Fedorov with their fourth round draft pick. Fedorov was not immediately able to join his NHL squad because of Soviet restrictions, but an opportunity presented itself only a year later. Fedorov played for the famed CSKA Moscow, and the team travelled to Seattle to play in the Goodwill Games in 1990. While there, Fedorov slipped away from his hotel and boarded a plane bound for Detroit, and the Red Wings had their first Russian star.
The Red Wings drafted two other high profile Soviets, before the fall of the Iron Curtain, though they were unable to acquire the services of their other selections until after the 1991 collapse. In the 11th round of the draft in which they chose Fedorov, the Wings chose Vladimir Konstantinov, and the next year, they selected Slava Kozlov. After a delay, those two men were finally able to join the Red Wings for the 1991-92 NHL season.
Fedorov, Konstantinov, and Kozlov soon met with success in their new home, and Detroit continued to add Russian talent to their roster. During the 1994-95 season, the Red Wings acquired Slava Fetisov via trade from the New Jersey Devils, and worked out a deal with the San Jose Sharks the next year for the services of Igor Larionov.
After the addition of Larionov, Scottie Bowman had an idea to play the five Russians together. While NHL teams dress 18 skaters, many European teams would dress 20 skaters and group them into five man units. Since the Red Wings had Russian players that played each position in such a unit, Larionov proposed that the Red Wings create such a unit with Konstantinov and Fetisov on the blue line, Fedorov at center, Kozlov at left wing, and Larionov at right wing. The concept was novel for the NHL, but the execution was flawless, and Bowman came out looking like a genius.
The new group played together well, and soon became well known for their chemistry on the ice. The so-called “Russian Five” was a vital part of the Red Wings’ success in the 1996-97 season. That year, Detroit had a respectable regular season, placing second in the Central Division, behind only the Dallas Stars, and earning 94 points in the standings, the fifth-most in the league. In the playoffs, the team took their act to another level entirely, and the Russian Five was largely responsible.
The 1997 Stanley Cup was the first of three that the Red Wings would win over the course of a six season span. In the first round of the playoffs, Detroit defeated the St. Louis Blues in six games, swept the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the second round, downed the defending champion Colorado Avalanche in six games in the Western Conference Finals, and finally swept the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals for a combined playoff record of 16-4. Remarkably, the team was 16-0 when at least one member of the Russian Five scored a point, and was 0-4 when the unit was held scoreless. The five Russians combined for 53 points in the team’s 20 playoff games.
Sadly, the 1997 Finals proved to be the last hurrah for the Russian Five. Less than a week after the Red Wings won hockey’s Holy Grail, Konstatinov was involved in a serious limousine accident which left him paralyzed, and nearly took his life. In his honor, the Red Wings wore a patch on their jerseys with the word “believe” in English and Russian during the 1997-98 season, and successfully defended their title, but the days of the Russian Five were tragically over.
Today, Fedorov, Fetisov, and Larionov are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and all five players have made their mark on the sport both individually and as a unit. The concept of the Russian Five was unusual, but no one can question Bowman’s wisdom. Their time together was short, but the Russian Five deserve to be remembered. Some lines can claim similar impacts on their teams, but none represent as drastic a change in the world of hockey as the Wizards of Ov.