One of the most dramatic and emotional of sports stories gets the expert film it deserves in “The Russian Five,” a documentary that is moving in ways you won’t see coming.
The sport is professional ice hockey, specifically the saga of the Detroit Red Wings, who in the 1990s changed both their professional trajectory and the way the game is played in the National Hockey League by boldly adding Russian players to the mix.
All this may sound very inside baseball, a tale that couldn’t possibly be of general interest, but, in fact, the reverse is true. The intensely human situations revealed by director Joshua Riehl will captivate you even if you don’t know a puck from a ping-pong ball.
Key to “Russian Five’s” success is Riehl’s ability to get almost all of the story’s key participants in front of the camera for extensive interviews.
These include expected folks such as key players and Red Wings’ executives and coaches, but also people you might not expect, including the actor Jeff Daniels, who turns out to be a die-hard Red Wings enthusiast and an inspired choice to give voice to the thoughts of the average fans.
Though Detroit had been a hockey power once upon a time, winning Stanley Cups with the great Gordie Howe anchoring the team, when “Russian Five” picks up the story in 1982, it had been decades since those glory days. The nickname “Dead Wings” had been given to the team as much in sadness as in anger.
Then, things began to change, first with a committed new owner who made his money with the Little Caesars pizza chain and then with a new general manager, Jimmy Devellano, a folksy individualist who enjoyed thinking outside the box.
It was Devellano, despite a lifetime of propaganda about the evil Soviets, who got the idea of first drafting great players from behind the Iron Curtain and then getting them to defect.
These wild and crazy cloak-and-dagger operations, related with great glee by both Devellano and his No. 2 Jim Lites, involved everything from suitcases literally full of cash to bribing Russian doctors to manufacture illness reports.
The first trio of defectors — Sergei Federov, Slava Kozlov and the intimidating Vladimir Konsantinov, later to be known as the Vladinator — helped the team, but weren’t enough.
That’s when the Wings hired the legendary NHL coach Scotty Bowman, who oversaw the acquisition of two more Russians, the wily defender Slava Fetisov and the on-the-ice mastermind Igor Larionov.
As might be expected, the Russians were not initially met with great warmth from either their teammates or the league, in part, because their style of play, so different from the NHL norm, was threatening.
As hockey fans will know, the international amateur style of hockey (showcased every four years at the Winter Olympics) that the Russians had mastered featured more pinpoint passing and puck control than the more bruising, less finesse-oriented NHL style.
How the skill of the players involved and the coaching insights of Bowman squared that particular circle and led to success in Detroit is what this film is all about, and the way “Russian Five” intercuts dazzling game footage with interviews makes it a treat to experience.
But what marks the truly memorable sports stories is that what happens outside the arena is as important as what happens inside. That unlooked-for combination of the heartening and heartbreak pushes “The Russian Five” to the very top.
‘The Russian Five’
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes