Cities that go too long without championships become the stuff of legend — endless punchlines to the rest of the sporting universe.
Boston, Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit all endured mythic losing streaks in this sport or that one. How Detroit’s long hockey drought ended, with a quintet of the first Russian players to slip into the NHL, is the celebratory subject of “The Russian Five.”
Joshua Riehl’s film is playful and fun, with the odd somber moment, a marvelous appreciation of the brutal beauty of the game when it’s played with the grace these players brought to it in the 1990s.
It begins with the cloak and dagger machinations of people like Red Wings exec Jim Lites, flippantly recalling sneaking this and that player out of the not-yet-former U.S.S.R. in hotels, through third party countries, answering angry phone calls from the U.S. State Department afterward.
This was at the behest of general manager Jim Devellano, a folksy, Canadian-accented slow-talking hustler who started gambling on “wasting” draft choices on very young Russian stars in the hope that some of them could be lured across “The Iron Curtain.”
“How do you get a guy to defect?”
They made it up as they went along, using the Detroit Free-Press hockey writer (Keith Gave), who just happened to speak Russian, to get to players like Sergei Federov and Vladimir Konstantinov.
A doctor was bribed to ensure that a player was diagnosed with cancer that could only be treated in America. There was another time Lites set up a secret rendezvous in the Drake Hotel in Chicago, where the Soviet National Team was playing an exhibition game, bringing a contract, $10,000 in cash, brochures for the nicest riverfront apartments in Detroit, and for a new Chevy.
That’s how you sell Detroit to the Russians — the river, a Corvette and good ol’ American greenbacks.
As Devellano assembled this team in the ultimate example of “playing the long game,” the NHL was exposed to a new style of hockey — pass happy instead of the “dump and chase” with lots of body-checking that Canada had turned it into.
“When they were on the ice, they had the puck all night,” a former teammate remembers.
But as the team’s “five piece unit” was pieced together, and the glorious, high-scoring style took root, the Big Prize eluded them. And the fans and the institutions of hockey built something “like the Mountain of Everest of pressure,” Federov recalls.
Here’s a dismissal by a print columnist of the day, there’s a doubt from then-coach Scotty Bowman or Lites or Devellano as the Red Wings “which had become, overnight, the RED Wings,” failed to win Lord Stanley’s Cup.
They’d have to “toughen up, play the Canadian way,” that back-bacon blowhard Don Cherry, the TV commentator who presided over the game for decades, fumes on the air. ” “I don’t want’em here, the players don’t want’em here. What is this? ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ or ‘Hockey Night in Russia?'”
Actor and Detroit area native Jeff Daniels is here to give us perspective how where Detroit’s image, of itself and to the world, was at the time.
The cute culture-clash nature of the new teammates pops up in old home movies where the Russians celebrate Blockbuster, where they can rent “Terminator” movies, Hellman’s Mayo and Corvettes. The Americans had to develop a taste for vodka and drinking sessions built on constant toasting.
And here’s former teammate Darren McCarty calling Vyacheslav Kozlov “the most miserable” so-and-so ever to play the game, and explaining the difference between a “sucker punch” and “cold cocking” somebody.
It’s a fun movie right up to the sobering reality that even the best moments are going to have sadness injected into by the cold, cruel world.
Still, “The Russian Five” manages to give us a lesson in the players who helped the NHL evolve and softened Cold War tensions as they did. It’s good to remember they’re not all Putins over there.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Jim Devellano, Sergei Fedorov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larianov, Wayne Gretsky, Vladimir Konstantinov , Vyacheslav Kozlov, Jeff Daniels
Credits: Directed by by Joshua Riehl, script by Keith Gave, Joshua Riehl and Jason Wehling. A Lucky Hat release.
Running time 1:38