THE RUSSIAN FIVE • A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery, Courage and Heroism

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Movie Reviews,   From Issue 887   By: Robert E Martin

31st October, 2019     0

In the late 1980s, long before Hillary Clinton stoked up the ugly paranoia of the Cold War to blame Russia for the thousands of emails released by WikiLeaks exposing her war-mongering, influence peddling, and rigging of the Democratic primaries, the Detroit Red Wings finally broke a 42-year Stanley Cup drought by extracting players from the Soviet Union and, in the process, changed the way North American hockey was played.

At that time in the late ‘80s the Red Wings suffered much ridicule and were often referred to as the ‘Dead Wings’.  But after pizza magnate Mike Ilitch bought the failing franchise, he appointed an unorthodox General Manager to build a championship team.

Throwing off conventional wisdom, the new GM looked to the Soviet Union itself - America’s one-time ally that suffered 21% more casualties than the USA did in World War II, only to become our mortal enemy thanks to the era of McCarthyism - and through a plot that sounds like a spy novel, the Red Wings organization brought on one Russian after another, sneaking them out under cover of night and whisking them to the Motor City - only to find that the new players faced another problem: integration.

In this amazing documentary we follow the stories of the five Russian players that emigrated to America, took root in Detroit, Michigan, and struggled to fit in, all while training day and night to become Stanley Cup champions. The new immigrants had to learn to communicate with their teammates, assimilate into the culture, and become Americans. Yet, along the way, the Russians began to teach the rest of the team the core of Soviet hockey, and better still, they started winning.

The Russian Five is the true story of immigrants that became American heroes, teammates that became family, and a scrappy, resilient city that became Stanley Cup Champions, twice. It’s a story about hopes and dreams becoming reality, and the harsh reality of dreaming big. The names Fedorov, Larionov, Fetisov, Kozlov, and Konstantinov are legend now in the Motor City and their influence is still felt throughout the National Hockey League today.

And all because a few brave people decided to set aside national identity, look beyond the web of falsehood spun by the propaganda machine, and reach for the stars.

On top of that, the film music in this documentary is seasoned with the flavor of Detroiter Wayne Kramer from the MC5.  Kramer composed the score for The Russian Five, and his music courses through the 100-minute film, alongside songs by other Detroit artists, including the Gories, Was (Not Was), Dennis Coffey, the Howling Diablos and Robert Bradley.

"They liked the idea that I'm a Detroiter," Kramer says of the "Russian Five" film team, including Port Huron-born director Joshua Riehl. "We have a unique relationship with music in this city, and I was happy to provide that."

In a recent interview with The Metro Times, director Riehl says making this documentary has been an idea for as long as he can remember. “The timing was right. Fortunately for me, the NHL was on a lockout at that point so all of these executives and teams weren't doing anything. They were just sitting around and hoping that the lockout would be resolved and they could get back to work. This film took nearly six years to make. There were a lot of opportunities to quit. I'm one of those people that when I have a vision for something, I pursue it doggedly to the very end.”

“I had a meeting with Denise Ilitch where she very politely said, "This sounds fantastic and I'd love to support it but I don't know the first thing about filmmaking." But she had a really good question: "Why does a filmmaker from Texas want to make a film about the Detroit Red Wings?"

When asked why he felt the story of The Russian Five an important story to tell now, he presciently responds: “We're living in such a polarized time right now. The idea that you can have this team where you've got players from the former Soviet Union, players from Sweden, from all over Canada, from America... it really isn't until that group of guys became a brotherhood that they had a shot to actually win the Stanley Cup.”

“When they do finally overcome these odds and win this trophy, this thing they've been working toward for so long and dreaming about, six days later there's an accident and the guy who was becoming the heart and soul of that team is in a coma for [weeks]. It's the perseverance that allowed Konstantinov to [recover] and still function today, and the perseverance to say, "We're going to rally around our fallen comrade and we're going to win it again for him."

“If we want to accomplish difficult things — hard tasks, important things to us — we need to look beyond ethnicity, nationality, race, religion, whatever it is. It's only by everyone pulling in the same direction, or as Sergei Fedorov says in the movie, "Pointing our guns at the enemy in the same direction.”

“You go back to the motto of the city from its inception,” he concludes.  “We hope for better things and we will rise from the ashes. That's what Mike Ilitch did with the team. That's what they had to do after they lost Konstantinov in '97. Those are the things I'm hoping people take away from it. There's a universal human truth to this story that I'm interested in. I didn't want to make a hockey film. I wanted to make a film about human beings who also play hockey.”

The Russian Five will be shown as part of the Riverside Saginaw Film Festival on Friday, November 8th at The Saginaw Castle Museum at 5:00 PM and on Saturday, November 9th at 11:00 AM.  It is sponsored by The Saginaw Spirit.





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