The Detroit Red Wings revolutionized the NHL by using the former Soviet Union as their unofficial farm team.
Detroit drafted or acquired five key Russian players between 1989 and 1995. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Red Wings’ rise is immortalized in The Russian Five, a compelling documentary that chronicles the team’s dynasty through the eyes of Vladimir Konstantinov, Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov, and Vyacheslav Kozlov. Those five Russians helped Detroit beat the Flyers in the 1997 Stanley Cup Final.
That Final is the climax of the film, which was produced by Steve Bannatyne and was shown in some theaters in late March. It will open Friday at the Regal UA Riverview Plaza in South Philly.
“Nobody gave the Wings a chance,” Bannatyne said the other day, referring to the 1997 Final. “The Flyers were the best team in the league and it was the Legion of Doom’s time to win it all.”
He was referring, of course, to the Flyers’ powerful line of John LeClair, Eric Lindros, and Mikael Renberg, a unit that led the Flyers to 103 points, nine more than the Red Wings in the regular season.
The Flyers were 12-3 in the playoffs that year before they met the Red Wings.
Detroit won in four games, ending a 42-year title drought. After Game 3, Flyers coach Terry Murray called the developments “basically a choking situation” by his team. Or maybe the Russian-led Red Wings were just that good. Detroit rolled by scores of 4-2, 4-2, 6-1, and 2-1 as Fedorov paved the way with three goals and three assists.
At one point in the film, a much-younger but-still-bombastic announcer, Don Cherry, blurts out: “What is this, Hockey Night in Canada or Hockey Night in Russia?”
The documentary, which has won numerous film-festival audience awards, explains how the Russians helped propel the perennially sad-sack Red Wings to consecutive Stanley Cup titles, and it devotes some screen time to the horrific limousine accident that left Konstantinov permanently disabled.
The film also tells of the remarkable journey the players made to get from the Soviet Union to Detroit toward the end of the Cold War. Sneaking the players out at night and whisking them to the Motor City was “worthy of your favorite Cold War spy novel,” said Joshua Riehl, the movie’s director.
When they all got to Detroit in 1995, Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman put the five Russians together in one unit, an innovative stroke of genius. The Red Wings, led by Fedorov’s 39 goals and 107 points, had a remarkable 62-13-7 record and 131 points that season.
The five-man unit dominated opponents with their speed, quick passing, and puck control – facets of the game that other teams gradually incorporated into their systems.
The film has been well-received. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 100 percent rating -- so far, 99 percent of audiences have liked it -- and The Hockey News called it a “100-minute masterpiece.”