Throughout the season we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at the Detroit Red Wings’ Russian Five and the questions they initially faced.
History will remember the Detroit Red Wings from the mid-1990s to, let’s say, 2002, as one of the NHL’s all-time great teams.
That is how they should be remembered, anyway. During that run they boasted an extensive list of Hall of Famers, won more games than any team in the league, played in four Stanley Cup Finals in eight years, and won three of them, including one of the few sets of back-to-back titles in recent history.
But if we go back in time to 1995, before the team started its run of championships, the Red Wings were looked at in an entirely different light.
Even though the team had successfully emerged from the “Dead Wings” era and rebuilt itself into a contender, having played in the Stanley Cup Final during the 1994-95 season where they ultimately lost to the New Jersey Devils, the pressure (and criticism) was still beginning to mount on the core that was in place.
The franchise was riding a Stanley Cup drought that dated back to 1955, and there was serious doubt as to whether or not the team the Red Wings had built was the right team to end it.
Because the NHL at this time was becoming a “bigger is better” kind of game, where everyone thought Stanley Cups were won on the backs of rugged-looking North Americans from Ontario and Minnesota that could grind teams down, the Red Wings were thought to be too small.
They were thought to be too European.
They were thought to lack grit and toughness.
But it did not stop there. Even the players that weren’t “too small” or “too European” faced questions and criticism. Steve Yzerman’s leadership was doubted and there was substantial talk about possibly moving him, even into the 1995-96 season when trade buzz swirled around him, Dino Ciccarelli and Ray Sheppard.
Eventually, a trade did get made on Oct. 24, 1995 when the Red Wings sent Sheppard to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for veteran forward Igor Larionov.
This would prove to be a significant move and forever change the Red Wings, and to an extent, the NHL.
The addition of Larionov gave the Red Wings five prominent players from the former Central Red Army team as he was reunited with Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, Slava Fetisov, and Vladimir Konstantionov.
Eventually, Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman (whose vision and genius was obvious the moment the trade was made) started using all of them together as a five man unit that would be known as the Russian Five.
Today they are celebrated as a legendary unit that dazzled fans and helped make the Red Wings a championship team.
When they were first assembled, they were not celebrated quite as much.
As mentioned above, the mindset that dominated the NHL during this time period was that teams had to be big and physical, and that it was impossible to win with a championship with a team that had too much of a European influence because, well, few teams had actually done it. Nobody stopped to think that it hadn’t been done because not many team actually tried it. The belief was that European hockey wasn’t right for the NHL, and that European players — specifically Russians — just did not care about winning the Stanley Cup.
You can call it a lot of things, but you should probably start with what it was: A very xenophobic way of looking at the sport and the league.
Bowman was having none of it.
Take this article from the Detroit Free Press the day after the Sheppard-for-Larionov trade was made, the “prejudicial question” about internal problems the number of non-North American players can cause, and Bowman’s response to a question about “how many Russians is too many?”
This was, again, at a time that critics of the Red Wings felt they need to get bigger and tougher, especially on defense, and instead opted to trade for another undersized Russian forward, one that was yet another center.
But Bowman had a vision for all of these players.
He saw Larionov as a valuable two-way player that was as good on the penalty kill as he was on the power play.
He saw Larionov, Fedorov, and Kozlov as interchangeable players that could play all three forward positions.
Eventually, at the urging of Larionov, he realized the success the former Soviet teams had using their best players as five-man units instead of a traditional line-rolling strategy that mixed up forward lines and defense pairs.
On Oct. 27, 1995, less than a month after Larionov was acquired, the Russian Five was officially born in a 3-0 win against the Calgary Flames, with that unit playing a major role in the win.
“You can bet your boots Calgary is going to come after them with all guns flaring.”
And that was the mindset … that you could push them around, and wear them down with the big, bad scary North American game. Never mind the fact that Fetisov and Konstantinov weren’t exactly “soft” players.
It did not work. At all.
After the unit scored the game’s opening goal 10 minutes into the first period, Larionov (with an assist from Fedorov) would score a shorthanded goal in the third period to put the game away.
The Red Wings would go on to win 62 games that season and reach the Western Conference Final, ultimately losing to the Colorado Avalanche and extending the Stanley Cup drought one more year.
They continued to win the following season, but the Stanley Cup question still lingered.
So let’s fast forward to May, 30, 1997, just before the start of the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers.
A Sporting News article (published in the Ottawa Citizen) profiled the group and attempted to tackle the question about desire and determination to win the Stanley Cup questions.
Some excerpts as various members of the unit had to defend themselves and their desire to win, as well as continued questions about a team with a heavy Russian influence winning the Stanley Cup.
The Red Wings ultimately ended any doubt as to whether or not their approach and style of play would work, obliterating the Flyers in four games and outscoring them by a 16-6 margin in the series to win the organization’s first Stanley Cup since 1955.
Unfortunately, their Cup-clinching Game 4 win would be the last time the five players would play together as Konstantinov had his career ended due to injuries suffered a limo accident in the days following the championship.
The Red Wings, with Fedorov, Larionov, Kozlov, and Fetisov all playing prominent roles, would go on to win another Stanley Cup the next season in yet another four-game sweep, this time against the Washington Capitals.
Their success would ultimately be a huge moment for the NHL.
For one, it silenced any criticism about teams built around non-North American players and how success was about skill and talent and not size and strength.
Second, it demonstrated the importance of puck possession, something that is still a dominant trend in the NHL today.
Ken Holland’s comments in that video: “You’d come to the rink knowing you were going to win, you just didn’t know what the score was going to be. We had the puck the whole night. If we had a good game we had the puck three quarters of the game, and if we had a bad game we had the puck two-thirds of the game. I can remember going on the road sometimes and beating teams 5-0, 5-1, and had the puck, the other team had no chance.”
Today the Russian Five is remembered as one of the most exciting units the NHL has ever seen and a key component to a dynasty. But it had to overcome a lot of questions and criticism to make people believers at the time.
Previous PHT Time Machines:
• Remembering the Jaromir Jagr Trade Nobody Won
• When the Blues skipped the NHL draft
• Expansion teams build Montreal dynasty
• The 1991 Dispersal Draft and Birth of the San Jose Sharks
• The Eric Lindros Trade That Did Not Happen
• The Mighty Ducks and the most insane pregame introduction ever