‘The Russian Five’ More Than Just a Hockey Documentary

When my wife and I first started dating, she admitted to not knowing very much about hockey, let alone the Detroit Red Wings.

Flash-forward six years. Both of us were in tears watching The Russian Five when the Red Wings shared the triumph of their 1998 Stanley Cup victory with Vladimir Konstantinov, who—as Hockeytown fans know well—suffered near-fatal injuries in a limousine accident the summer prior.

We’ve watched many Red Wings games throughout our relationship and discussed Konstantinov’s accident on a few occasions. But this was just raw emotion parading down the sides of our faces.

It hit us afterward: The Russian Five masterfully communicated with two completely different audience groups. The film resonated with my wife, who is a casual fan of the game, and me, a life-long hockey player who could probably list off 95 percent of the people to ever suit up for the Red Wings.

Direct of ‘The Russian Five’ Joshua Riehl alongside Sergei Fedorov. (Joshua Riehl/The Russian Five)

Reaching a wide variety of audiences was a priority early on for director Joshua Riehl.

“I set out right away to not make a hockey film,” Riehl said in an interview with The Hockey Writers. “I wanted to just tell a good story.”

It goes beyond being a hockey fan or not. The film was designed to reach people who weren’t even alive yet. Heck, Dylan Larkin was still a few months away from being born when Claude Lemieux leveled Kris Draper from behind, sparking a decade-long rivalry with the Colorado Avalanche.

The tale of The Russian Five was meant to transcend generations, which, in reality, is exactly how it played out.

It’s about community,” Riehl said. “It’s about passing on that love of the game from one generation to the next.”

Here Come the Russians

The Russian Five follows the journeys of Konstantinov, Sergei Fedorov, and Slava Kozlov took to reach the NHL after being drafted by the Red Wings. Back in the late-80s and early-90s, Russian players couldn’t just sign with NHL teams – they had to escape the grasp of the mighty Soviet Union first.

Riehl in the home of former Red Wings winger Slava Kozlov. (Joshua Riehl/The Russian Five)

Once they reached America, the trio had to adapt to a different lifestyle, learn a new language, and perform on the ice night-in and night-out. The film chronicles Fedorov, Konstantinov, and Kozlov’s assimilation into the Red Wings’ locker room, the subsequent additions of Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov, and how the five combined to form a dominating five-man unit and help the Red Wings develop into perennial contenders.

Jim Devellano, Steve Yzerman, Jim Lites, Ken Holland, Jeff Daniels, and a handful of former Red Wings players recalled tales of the group, with Fedorov, Larionov, Kozlov, and Fetisov all sharing their point-of-view as well.

Related: Do You Know Your Red Wings Trivia?

Real Characters

The film does an excellent job of humanizing the people involved in the events that transpired throughout the Red Wings’ rise to contention.

Konstantinov, in particular, had a difficult personal choice to make early on. Due to documentation issues, his wife and young daughter could not fly to America right away after they fled the Soviet Union. Does he jump on the plane with Red Wings brass or stay behind until the paperwork was completed and risk being caught by Soviet officials?

You could feel the agony that he was going through in that moment.

“Vladdie had to make the decision,” Riehl noted. “He had to put his trust in the (Red) Wings that they were going to get his wife and daughter out of Budapest.

“It only took them a couple of days, but can you imagine leaving your wife behind the communist bloc not knowing? It’s heartbreaking.”

Slava Fetisov signing autographs during filming. (Joshua Riehl/The Russian Five)

We often think of the game in terms of wins and losses, contracts and salaries, counting stats, and advanced possession metrics. But we tend to forget that human beings play the game – real people, who feel real emotions.

From Fedorov’s pure joy from watching color TV for the first time, to the searing hatred toward the Colorado Avalanche – these are characteristics that make us uniquely human. And they’re conveyed in such a way that all audiences can relate to.

Hollywood Plot Line

Between the international espionage, breakthrough storylines, tragedy, and triumph, it almost felt like the plot line was conceived in a Hollywood writers room.

“You couldn’t write it any better if you tried, Riehl said. “Even down to the little details like when Claude Lemieux won the Conn Smythe, I believe, with the Devils when they swept Detroit. And then a year later, he’d be the villain again with Colorado.”

And like in most Hollywood action movies, the good guys eventually came out on top. The 1997 Stanley Cup victory was proof of that.

Next Up for ‘The Russian Five’

After a “whirlwind” schedule of film festivals and theatrical releases, the next step is to go digital.

“We are going to release (The Russian Five) on iTunes and other platforms such as that on June 7,” Riehl said.

The film will also be available on DVD shortly, making it an excellent Father’s Day gift with the holiday coming up. There will certainly be more theatrical releases as well, possibly expanding further around the world.

“The Aussies have been particularly forceful about bringing it down to Australia,” Riehl chuckled.

“It just goes to show that this is a story that resonates all over, not just Detroit.”