In the final days of the Iron Curtain, the Detroit Red Wings boldly pursued a new strategy of drafting and trading for Soviet-born players. From the 1989 draft to the October 24, 1995 trade, the Red Wings recruited five stars – Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Vyacheslav “Slava” Kozlov, Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, and Igor Larionov – who formerly played for the Red Army club. They skated together for the first time, as a unit, on October 27, 1995.
That night in the nearly sold out Saddledome, coach Scotty Bowman unleashed the Russian Five on the Calgary Flames. The NHL had never skated a complete unit of former-Soviets, and according to Kozlov, “the hockey that we started playing, the North Americans didn’t understand.” However, team captain Steve Yzerman noticed, “When Scotty put them all together, the five Russians, there was instant chemistry. It was unique. It had never been done in the NHL, and for us it was enjoyable, really enjoyable to watch, and obviously it helped us win hockey games.” Detroit general manager Jim Devellano commented, “It was beautiful to watch. Every pass was tape-to-tape. They all knew where everybody else was. They showed us the pride of the Russians. I mean, they were Russians and here they were in America, playing in the NHL together on a top-notch team in Detroit. Who would have ever thought that?” Assistant coach Dave Lewis had the answer. “I think it helped that it happened in Detroit. The fans know the game, and they really took a liking to all the Russian guys. But you’ve got to give it to Scotty for getting them all together.” The Russian Five dominated the game making 15 of the 25 shots on goal with Kozlov scoring in the first period and Larionov scoring in the third to end the game 3-0.
The five Russians played for the same Red Army club and hailed from western Russia. Fedorov was born in Pskov (near the border with Estonia) and grew up in Apatity (near the border with Finland). Konstantinov also hailed from the Arctic Circle, in Murmansk, the largest city up there. Kozlov and Larionov both hailed from Voskresensk near Moscow, where Fetisov was born.
When the Red Wings drafted Fedorov and Konstantinov in 1989, they sent Russian-speaking sportswriter Keith Gave to interview the two and secretly pass along invitations and information concerning the team during their training camp held at Helsinki, Finland. At first, Federov said, “I still didn’t understand what the draft is, who the Red Wings are, nothing really about the NHL. . . . My parents would be very upset with me if I change my mind now and try to get a release [from military service].” Thanks to some furtive planning, the Red Wings helped Fedorov defect in July 1990. As scout Nick Polano said, “We had him in Detroit before the Russians knew he was gone.” Unlike Fedorov, Konstantinov, captain of the Red Army team and a captain in the military, wanted to leave, but between his rank and his 25-year military contract, he would be considered a felon (and thus ineligible for a work visa) if he defected. The Red Wings ended up bribing doctors to tell the army that Konstantinov had a rare form of cancer they could not treat, and eventually, Konstantinov received a medical release. He escaped to Budapest with his wife and 3-year-old daughter before flying to the U.S.
In June 1990, Detroit drafted Kozlov in the third round – setting a new record for the highest draft pick of a Soviet-born skater. However, he was an immature 19-year-old who worried for his parents and liked the salary he was making with the Central Red Army club (CSKA). He only played 11 games with CSKA before a terrible car accident left him in coma for four hours and in the hospital for three months in the autumn of 1991. Kozlov remembered, “What kept me going and helped me to recover the most was the fear of never playing hockey again, because that is the meaning of my life. And the situation with my parents, putting all their hopes on me, that helped me to come out of the situation and recover form the accident and keep moving.” The Red Wings stepped in and again bribed the doctors to say that Kozlov had “permanent brain damage and a loss of peripheral vision,” so he was released from the military and then the hospital. He flew to Detroit that February 1992. His father, Anatoly, a career hockey coach, “spoke of how proud he was that Slava was playing in North America, in the best hockey league in the world. He was grateful that his son was so well-received, like the other Russian players, by the people of Detroit.”
The other two of the Russian Five had already left the Soviet Union for other NHL teams. Fetisov signed with the Devils after being drafted in 1983 and was promised that he could end his career there, but the Soviets kept postponing his release. In response, he wrote a public article and was forced to serve the Red Army as a soldier at the rank of major. Larionov went on TV to say he and teammates would not play internationally until Fetisov was reinstated. In 1989, Fetisov finally left to play for the Devils. “When I came to play in the [NHL], there was more politics in the game. In the first place, it was still the Cold War. When I walk in the dressing room, I can feel there was still some guys that don’t like you,” he said. “I took the challenge and it took a lot out of me, mentally and physically. . . . I had two choices in 1989. I could pack my stuff and go back, or I could fight through it.” When Fetisov re-signed with the Devils, he did not see much ice time, so the Red Wings traded a third-round draft pick for him on April 3, 1995. His new teammate Fedorov said, “It was certainly easy to play defense with him. He would not throw the puck around the glass. He would always find you. Slava brought to our team stability – and a lot of experience on the defensive end, where we had a little trouble.”
Just as Fedorov encouraged the Red Wings to acquire Fetisov, Fetisov was vital to the decision to trade for Larionov. The two were longtime friends and teammates. Larionov appeared too friendly with Americans, so the Soviets banned him from travelling abroad. In response, he published an open letter in October 1988 and “began to kick down what remained of the Iron Curtain.” Almost as soon as he became a civilian in May 1989, he signed with the Vancouver Canucks. As Larionov wrote in his book, “For nine years I was shackled in an Army I did not want to join, playing the game I loved for a man I despised. Now, at last, I am in the NHL. And most of all, I am free.” He quit for a season (but played for HC Lugano in Switzerland) before signing with the San Jose Sharks in 1993. Ironically, “in their first Stanley Cup playoff experience,” the Sharks “defeated the top-seeded and heavily favored Detroit Red Wings in the first round – one of the more memorable upsets in NHL history.” This caught Bowman’s attention, but when he asked about a trade, he learned it would cost the Red Wings one of their top goal-scorers, Ray Sheppard. Fetisov, as “a big supporter of the Russian system,” convinced Bowman to make the trade when he said, “You know, we would have five then, and if you ever want to, you could play them together.”
Going into the 1995-96 season, the Red Wings had just come out of the Stanley Cup finals having been swept by the New Jersey Devils. The Russian Five, “seemingly overnight,” according to Gave, “elevated their play to a level rarely witnessed in the league, breaking records and raising expectations sky-high.” They ended the season winning a record 62 regular-season games and the second-highest points of all time (131 points). Although the team lost the conference finals (to the Colorado Avalanche), they went on to sweep the Philadelphia Flyers and then the Washington Capitals to win back-to-back championships the next two seasons. After winning, Gave said to the Russian Five, “Molodyets (well done)!”
- Keith Gave, The Russian Five: A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery and Courage, Kindle Edition.
- Kirk McKnight, The Voices of Hockey: Broadcasters Reflect on the Fastest Game on Earth (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 64-67.