‘The Russian Five’ debuts on PBS: Relive the thrills of Detroit Red Wings’ iconic group

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
 
| Detroit Free Press

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One interview was particularly tough to get, but it was such a crucial — and colorful — part of the backstory behind Sergei Fedorov joining the Detroit Red Wings.

How Nick Polano convinced a nervous taxi driver that he wasn’t about to carry out an execution but rather an extrication is just one of the thrilling moments people in southeast Michigan can see for free at 9 p.m. Thursday when “The Russian Five” documentary will air on Detroit Public TV.

The movie tells the story of how Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov, Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov came to Detroit and revolutionized North American hockey with their puck-possession game. The film had a limited premiere in April of 2018 and was officially released in March 2019, and previously only has been on pay channels.

“I’ve watched the film 30 or 40 times, and every time, I cry,” Keith Gave, a writer and producer on the film, said.

Gave, a former Free Press sports writer, estimated the film was more than three years in the making. Simultaneously, he was writing the book that would become “The Russian Five: A story of espionage, defection, bribery and courage.”

FROM 2019: ‘The Russian Five’ skates new path to box-office win

The documentary is loaded with interviews, from the five players to other Wings teammates, coaches and front-office personnel. Others include Wayne Gretzky and actor Jeff Daniels.

One of the most riveting segments of the movie details Fedorov’s defection.

In July 1990, Fedorov was in Portland, Oregon, preparing for an exhibition with the Soviets in advance of the Goodwill Games. Polano was a scout with the team, and was there with Wings executive vice president Jim Lites. After the game, the plan was for Fedorov to follow Lites and Polano to a taxi that would would whisk them to the airport, where Mike Ilitch’s jet awaited.

[Book excerpt: When the Detroit Red Wings made Steve Yzerman cry ]

Gave knew the documentary would be best served by having Polano be a part of telling the story. But Polano, who passed away in 2019, was dealing with Alzheimer’s, and his wife, Elva, was reluctant to have him sit for an interview.

“She was extremely protective of him, and I can’t blame her,” Gave said earlier this week. “They were worried we were going to make fun of him somehow. I probably had five or six conversations with her, pleading with her, that she could be there. That we would take our time and if he got frustrated or confused, we’d stop and go back and go over it.”

Eventually, an interview was arranged. It was worth it.

“Nick gave us some really, really good stuff, as I knew he would, because he was there every step of the way,” Gave said. “He was there in Portland, and the driver was saying, ‘buddy, I don’t want any part of what you’re doing,’ as they’re waiting for Sergei. He thought they were going to kill somebody. That it was some kind of mob hit. Nick had to talk the limo driver off the edge and basically said, look, when my partner comes out, he’s going to have somebody with him, and we’re going to go to the airport as quick as you can get us there, and he’s going to give you a nice, big tip when we there.

“We’re not going to kill anybody. But what I will tell you is that whatever we’re doing right now is going to make headlines all over the world tomorrow.”

Book excerpt: How Chris Osgood built a home in Hockeytown ]

That was a moment in the movie that makes you want to cheer. The crying comes later, when the movie turns to the June 13, 1997, limo accident that brought to a halt the celebrations that hadn’t waned since the Wings ended a 42-year drought and won the Stanley Cup the previous Saturday. The accident ended Konstantinov’s career, but he was there, in a wheelchair, on the ice in Washington, when the Wings won the Cup again the following year.

FROM 2019: Vladimir Konstantinov and his untold battle after fateful limo crash

One the many touching moments the night the Wings won the 1997 Cup comes after captain Steve Yzerman has taken the first lap with the trophy. The first teammate Yzerman handed the Cup to was Fetisov. He and Larionov skated their lap together, clutching the final piece of hardware missing from their hockey treasure chests.

Fetisov and Larionov already were legends in Russia when they joined the Wings, in respectively, April 1995 and October 1995. But xenophobic pundits in North America — Canada, really — questioned whether the Stanley Cup meant as much to Europeans, because it wasn’t an international tournament the way the Olympics are.

The documentary lays bare what a misguided notion that was.

Though the Russian Five were together relatively briefly, the legacy was immense. Not just for the way they dazzled with the puck, but for the way they proved how sports can unite, rather than divide.

“The guy who emphasized it more than anybody was Slava Fetisov,” Gave said. “When he talked about sports being a bridge between cultures — I’m not sure there’s any greater spokesman for that kind of thing than a decorated hero from the former Soviet Union who came to the United States and completed his war chest. The last thing he hadn’t won was the Stanley Cup, and he did that.”

FROM 2019: Once a Wings star, Slava Fetisov now takes on global warming

Fetisov retired after the 1998 Stanley Cup victory and returned to Russia, where he became a member of the State Duma, one of the two bodies of the Russian Federal Assembly.

“He talked about bridging cultures a lot,” Gave said. “And he still does.

“I spent my military career, six years of it, fighting the Cold War. And it feels like now we’re back to the Cold War. Our relationship with Russia is as bad as it was at the height of the Cold War. I’m glad we have people like Slava Fetisov over there, part of that government, a close friend, it seems like, of Vladimir Putin, who can vouch for how good things can be with sports as a bridge.”

A Perfect Holiday Gift

What: “The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings.”

Author: Helene St. James, who has covered the Red Wings at the Detroit Free Press since 1996. Foreword by Chris Osgood, winner of three Stanley Cups as a Wings goaltender.

Publisher: Triumph Books.

Pages: 336 pages (paperback).

Price: $16.95.

Availability: Available in leading bookstores and online from booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

About the book: “The Big 50” brings to life the men and moments that made the Red Wings such a dynamic and iconic franchise for nearly a century. The book features never-before-told stories about the greats such as Howe, Yzerman, Lidstrom and Lindsay, the near-greats beloved by fans and the great memories of Fight Night, the Fabulous Fifties, the Team for the Ages, the Grind Line, The Joe and much more.

Get it signed! For a personalized copy of “The Big 50,” contact St. James at hstjames@freepress.com

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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