In their heydey, the Detroit Red Wings unleashed a five-man unit unlike any line the NHL had ever seen: The Russian Five. And now, they’re getting the big screen recognition they deserve.
Director Joshua Riehl has spent the past few years turning his dream into reality. Along with the backing of NHL player agent/executive producer Dan Milstein and a talented videography group, Riehl has been able to piece together a deep-diving documentary that reveals the true impact the Russian Five had on the Red Wings, NHL, and the game of hockey.
Riehl recently sat down with Tony Wolak of The Hockey Writers to discuss his project.
Tony Wolak: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with The Hockey Writers, Joshua. As you would guess, most Detroit Red Wings fans would agree that the Russian Five was an integral part in building a dynasty here in Hockeytown. What was it though that made you want to share their story on the big screen?
Joshua Riehl: I grew up in Port Huron, a small city on the US/Canada border and at one point the training camp home of the Detroit Red Wings. It was that 1993-94 season when Sergei Fedorov had his breakout year and I really started to pay close attention to the Red Wings and in particular this Russian phenom. No matter how slick Lou and Tram could turn a double play for the Tigers, it paled in comparison to the graceful, powerful, and exciting things Sergei was doing on the ice that season.
If I recall, (the 1997 Stanley Cup) was the summer between middle and high school, and for six full days my friends and I were convinced we were on the verge of the greatest summer of our lives. For us, seeing Steve Yzerman hoist the Stanley Cup was proof that you could do anything in life if you wanted it bad enough—an exciting idea for 15-year-old boys to encounter at that life stage. But that Friday night, June 13th, that excitement stopped.
I was playing in a street hockey summer league and I would practice my slap shot in my parents’ garage—launching those hard plastic balls at an old refrigerator that I had peppered so many times. I’ll never forget going into the house to get some water and seeing the breaking news on the TV. They didn’t how badly injured the players were and, eventually, they were able to confirm that Vladimir Konstantinov, who had supplanted Sergei to become my favorite player that season, was critically injured.
It’s hard to explain or understand how much that limo accident affected everyone throughout not just Detroit, but Michigan. The celebrations stopped and everything turned somber. From the life-long Red Wings fans to the Stanley Cup bandwagoners, people were genuinely concerned and sad for what had happened to OUR Detroit Red Wings players. To see these guys who had worked so hard and finally accomplished that ultimate goal – only to have their lives tragically turned in an instant – it kind of made you realize how unfair life could be. When the Wings won the Cup again the following season, inspired by Vladdy’s slow but steady recovery, we all cheered and I’m not ashamed to admit I cried when Stevie (Yzerman) put the Stanley Cup in Vladdy’s lap and the whole team pushed him around the ice. It was this really bittersweet ending to the story that stuck with me – someone who was just gaining an interest in storytelling.
In high school, I kind of moved away from playing sports and bought my first video camera. I started shooting anything and everything, but especially my friends’ bands and eventually interviews with major record label bands. I kind of knew that this is what I wanted to do for a career and, throughout high school, I started to make plans to go off to film school in New York or Chicago. But at the end of my first semester of community college, I got into a car accident that ended up really injuring my back. Before I knew it, I had three surgeries on my spine over the next six years and, between the second and third surgery, when I had reached a lower than low place of frustration with my predicament, my grandparents bought me a Vladimir Konstantinov #16 home jersey for Christmas.
I don’t know if it was (my grandparents’) intention or not, but I kind of realized that what I was going through was nothing compared to what Vladdy had to go through. I had a moment where I said to myself, “I can make it through this and still follow my dream of being a filmmaker.” And after the third surgery and months of extraneous physical therapy, I moved to enroll in the film school at the University of Texas at Austin.
During my time at UT, I made a couple of films about criminal justice, including field-producing an episode of PBS’ Frontline. My experience and background in the topic caught the interest of two-time Academy Award-nominated director Al Reinert. Al was making a film about Michael Morton, a man who spent 25 years in jail for his wife’s murder only to later be exonerated when DNA tests identified the real killer.
Al really took me under his wing and gave me a lot of great insight into telling stories, the kind of stuff that you can only learn from the old masters. One day while we were driving from Houston to Corscicana, Al asked me what story I wanted to make when I directed my first feature film. I told him about the story of the Russian Five—how these guys all left behind the Soviet Union, some through defections, to end up playing in Detroit and changing the Red Wings and the game of hockey. I told him how they overcame adversity and it was the mild-mannered “Professor”—the least likely suspect—who started the brawl that changed the Red Wings forever.
He listened as I described the Wings winning the Cup, the parades, the rallies, the feelings of joy, and how all of it stopped in a heartbeat when that limo hit the tree. Al, knowing a great story when he hears one, told me in no uncertain terms that I had to make this film and, that if he had to stop hiring me to produce his films to force me to do so, he would.
Tony Wolak: To do this project right, you had to travel quite a bit, including a trip to Russia. Tell me about your team’s adventures to capture the necessary parts of the film.
Joshua Riehl: We’ve done our fair share of traveling for this documentary. In 2015, we kicked off production in Toronto for Sergei Fedorov’s Hockey Fall of Fame induction, picked up some interviews there, and followed up with a quick trip to Dallas where we interviewed Jim Lites. We closed up the year with a week-long trip in Moscow the week before Christmas, where we were lucky to have unseasonably warm weather. (We were able to walk around Red Square in sweatshirts on our final night!)
We’ve been fortunate to have most of our remaining interviews come to us in Detroit, either visiting family or stopping by an event at Joe Louis Arena. Outside of a nightmare trip to the NHL Draft in Buffalo and the craziest 24-hour trip to Toronto to interview Wayne Gretzky, the only other traveling I did in 2016 was a quick trip to Albany to interview Dave Strader. I would have to say that, by far, my favorite trip was Moscow. The food was incredible, the architecture is amazing, and we had a kick-ass local crew who, outside of some language barrier issues at times, were a breeze to work with.
Tony Wolak: Along the way, you’ve met many influential hockey figures: Scotty Bowman, Steve Yzerman, Igor Larionov. The list goes on. Was there anyone who you and your team were a bit star-struck to be around?
Joshua Riehl: My background in filmmaking has put me in situations that are often surreal. I started out heavily interested in music and I ended up going out on tour with some friends’ band, Taproot, in the summer of 2000. I hadn’t even graduated high school yet and I found myself hanging out with bands like Incubus, Pantera, and Ozzy Osbourne. I had kind of assumed that all of those experiences would insulate me from being star-struck on this film.
The first initial meetings with Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov and Sergei Fedorov all went pretty professionally, so I thought I was good to go when we started production in November of 2015. The first interview we did on the (Toronto) trip turned out to be Scotty Bowman. The funny thing about doing interviews for a film like this is that you spend so much time tweaking the shot, making sure you’ve got your questions prepared, and all of the other little details that come with the territory of documentary filmmaking that you don’t really have time to be nervous ahead of the actual interview.
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to meet Scotty Bowman, you’ll know that he’s got a presence. He can walk into a room and you just feel that he’s entered. Slava Fetisov and Steve Yzerman have that presence too, but the difference between them and Bowman is like a Jedi Knight and Jedi Master. Scotty’s the Jedi Master and I admit, I found myself awestruck by his presence. Imagine my horror when, minutes after Scotty telling us that he only had a few more minutes before he had to leave, ambulance sirens started blaring out from the Toronto streets below us, forcing us to pause for our audio until they went down.
After that, it got increasingly comfortable and easier to block out being star-struck. I feel like somewhere between that morning with the greatest coach in the history of hockey and interviewing the greatest player in the history of hockey, Wayne Gretzky, I discovered a secret: you can’t be star-struck if you don’t have time. Most of these legends we’ve interviewed are really busy guys. Steve Yzerman’s running the Tampa Bay Lightning, Sergei Fedorov was running CSKA at the time, and Wayne Gretzky was going from interview to interview to promote the NHL at the World Cup. I’d allow myself a brief second before the interview to appreciate who was sitting in the chair but after that second it became all business with the focus on “how do I get the material I need in the allotted time we have with this person?”
Tony Wolak: At the other end of the spectrum, were there any interviewees who were easy to be around and had a great sense of humor?
Joshua Riehl: As a director, you’re always looking for those great interviewees who can not only provide great sound bites but also deliver them in a way that’s emotionally engaging with the audience. One of those emotional keys you’re looking for is a sense of humor. We were fortunate to have many guys on camera who could crack us up.
It’s hard to pick one, so I’m going to cheat and say that Darren McCarty and Brendan Shanahan were probably the funniest (although we’re still hoping to put Chris Osgood on camera and I’ve heard from (McCarty) that he’s got a wicked sense of humor).
The one guy who I didn’t anticipate adding so much humor was Jimmy Devellano. Jimmy D’s got a cadence and way of talking that’s so engaging and has quickly become my editors’ favorite interviewee.
Tony Wolak: You’ve interviewed a number of great hockey minds and NHL Hall of Famers. Were there any stories that came out – perhaps some that were previously unknown to the general public – that made you think, “Wow, that’s incredible…”?
Joshua Riehl: Before we started sitting these guys down and interviewing them, I had done some pretty extensive background research. Having Keith Gave, who was the beat writer for Detroit Free Press during this era of Red Wings hockey, as a producer really helped. I read everything I could get my hands on and wanted to be fully prepared so that I could dig around for those kinds of stories that the average fan might not know about. That said, there were a couple of stories that I had either never heard before or only had partial or unconfirmed details. Some of those stories are going to be pivotal plot points and scenes in the documentary and, I hope, help finally deconstruct some of the misconceptions about the Russian Five.
Without any spoilers, I’ll say that there are stories that prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Sergei Fedorov was far tougher than Red Wings fans and critics gave him credit for. There’s also a wonderful story that might not make it into the final cut about Martin Lapointe carrying Sergei Mnatsakanov onto the team plane for the trip to Washington, D.C., where the Red Wings would be honored at the White House. Mnatsakanov’s wheelchair couldn’t make it up the ramp and it was looking like he’d be unable to make the trip. That story exemplifies the camaraderie and love for each other that the 1996-97 Red Wings had and there are many more like it that we had to choose from.
Tony Wolak: We’re certainly excited to learn more about the Russian Five, their background, and the impact they had on the game of hockey. When can we expect to see a finished product up on the big screen?
Joshua Riehl: I wish I had a more specific answer to that question—I can’t go out in public when I visit my family in Port Huron without having at least two or three people I know ask me that. Seriously though, I’ve been working on this in some form for what’s going on four-plus years now. So while I’m eager to have it done and out to the public, I also want to make sure that it’s of quality that is befitting of these incredible men and their incredible story.
With that said, it’s my goal to premiere this film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. I’ve taken painstaking care to make sure that this story we’re telling is one that reaches far beyond just that of a “hockey documentary” or even a “sports documentary.” The story of the Russian Five is bigger than the sport of hockey and it’s been very important to me to present it in a way that can appeal to both die-hard fans and people who have never watched a single shift of hockey.
At some point, I hope to do some theatrical in the state of Michigan and, perhaps, some other strong hockey and documentary markets across North America, as well as VOD (video on-demand), iTunes, and of course, TV broadcast. It’d be a dream if we could take the film to Europe and Russia too! The better I do my job as director, the more opportunities this will have to be seen, so I’m just focusing on that part.
Tony Wolak: Joshua, I want to thank you again for taking the time to share your project with The Hockey Writers and our audience. We’re looking forward to seeing the film in the not-too-distant future.
Joshua Riehl: Thanks again! Cheers!