The Russian Five, written by Detroit sports journalist Keith Gave, recounts the story of the Detroit Red Wings of the 1980s and the early- to mid-90s. The team was stuck in a long losing streak. It had not won the championship since 1955. The morale of the players and fans was abysmal – so bad they were dubbed the Dead Wings.
The franchise was sold in 1982 to Mike Ilitch, the founder of the Little Caesars pizza chain who had a mission of restoring the Red Wings former glory. The team’s management, under leadership of head coach Scotty Bowman, moved forward with a risky plan: to recruit star athletes from the Soviet Union. Getting those players into the United States from behind the Iron Curtain was going to be tricky. Bowman made history by drafting them – all that was left was to figure out how to get them out. That’s when Keith Gave entered the picture: he spoke Russian and was able to travel as a journalist with a clandestine mission. His trip to Helsinki, Finland, was the first phase of a of a years-long series of secret meetings from posh hotel rooms to remote forests around Europe to orchestrate the unlawful departures from the Soviet Union.
They are the Russian Five: Sergei Fedorov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Igor Larionov. Their individual stories read like pulse-pounding-Cold-War spy novels. One defection created an international incident and made global headlines. Another player faked cancer, thanks to the Wings’ extravagant bribes to Russian doctors, including a big American car. Another player who wasn’t quite ready to leave yet felt like he was being kidnapped by an unscrupulous agent. Two others were outcast when they stood up publicly against the Soviet regime, winning their freedom to play in the NHL only after years of struggle.
Bowman noticed that Soviet teams frequently put their forwards and defensemen together on five-man units. And it wasn’t until all five players were put on the ice as a unit that the gears clicked into place and the Russian Five could finally display their spectacular prowess. Viewers were quoted as saying it looked like they were playing keep-away from the other teams, denying all attempts at defensive maneuvering.
The unit played an instrumental role during the Red Wings’ success of that decade. They helped the Red Wings reach the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals, and eventually win the 1997 and 1998 Stanley Cup.
The Russian Five is a 2019 Michigan Notable Book and was made into a documentary just released this past June. The book was chosen as the 3rd annual “One Book, One Community” for the White Lake Area, sponsored by friends of the White Lake and Montague Libraries. In addition to the book discussion that was held on October 2 at the Book Nook, the upcoming events include: a movie screening of the documentary at the Montague Branch Library at 7pm on Wednesday, October 16; a lecture by Blue Lake Public Radio’s Foley Schuler on “The Original Russian Five” – a group of five Russian nationalist composers at 7pm, Tuesday, October 29 at the Book Nook; “Pints and Pucks” hockey talk and beer at 7pm Wednesday, October 30 at Pub 111; and wrapping it up with a Community Potluck at 5pm Sunday, November 3 at Lebanon Lutheran Church, followed by a book talk with the author Keith Gave. For more information call the Montague Branch Library at 231-893-2675.