I was first introduced to Red Wings hockey when I was 4 years old, so in 1993 or 94. At the time, I told my dad it was a stupid game and that there was no way I was watching it. A few days later, I was walking around the house and heard my dad screaming something to the effect of, "KILL HIM, PROBERT!!" This piqued my interest, of course, so I snuck up behind the couch where he was sitting and peeked around a corner to watch what was going on. I don't remember the fight, but I can imagine that legendary Bob Probert did actually come close to killing whomever it was he was fighting.
Over the next few weeks, I continued to watch from afar. I didn't want to admit to my dad that I was wrong, that hockey was not a stupid game. It took probably five or six games for me to get caught hiding back there. Oddly enough, it was not the one I was hiding from that found me. It was my grandfather, over to watch a game. He picked me up, took me into the room and I sat on his lap and watched Red Wings hockey, truly, for the first time. That is the day, much like when he showed me a Russian with the same first name playing for the Vipers, that I met Sergei Fedorov.
Now, for those of you too young to remember, Sergei Fedorov in the 90's was one of the most talented athletes in the world. He was easily the most talented Wing of my lifetime, and I would fight you to the death defending that statement. Say what you want about Yzerman and Datsyuk and Lidstrom and even Shanahan and Chelios: Fedorov had more talent in all facets of the game. He won the Hart that season as the league's MVP and that is precisely what I saw when I was first introduced to the hockey world. I could spend an entire post talking about the greatness that was Sergei Fedorov, and maybe I will, but that is not what I want to talk about here.
Sergei Fedorov was the start of something brilliant. His coach, Scotty Bowman, had noticed that Fedorov and his countrymen would play in five-man units as opposed to the more traditional dual units of 3 forwards and 2 defenseman. He never put this method to application until the mid 90's when the Wings had accumulated five Russians, five of the best players in the world. Five Russians that helped destroy the barrier between the USSR and the NHL. I am, of course, speaking of Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, Slave Fetisov, and Vladimir Konstantinov.
That was the Russian Five. Fedorov centering Larionov and Kozlov while Fetisov and Konstantinov brought up the rear. The Great Wall of Russia. At the time, many had Konstantinov pegged as an all-time great in-the-making. Fetisov was already a Hall of Famer in his own right. Larionov was possibly the smartest playing forward the game has ever seen, and appropriately nicknamed "The Professor." Kozlov was the tricky winger who many backed off of to defend the likes of Fedorov and Larionov, a mistake few made twice. And, of course, Fedorov was a myriad of things. Fastest player in the league with the hardest slap shot and, oh yeah, good enough to be an all star as both a Center and Defender.
The five played together as one cohesive unit. Forgive me for my nerdiness showing through, but they were the hockey equivalent of Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin Solo flying in the asteroid belt in Vector Prime. They were so in tune with each other that the outside world meant nothing and as one person did something, the others moved immediately to accent them. It was, simply put, beautiful.
While I can't find any hard stats of what they managed to do on the ice, I do remember Larionov and Fedorov lighting up the scorer's box (you know, back when someone actually sat there with their finger on a button) often and I do know that they contributed quite a bit to our record breaking 62 win season in 1996 as well as to 3 of our 4 modern Stanley Cups.
Shortly after I had been introduced to the soul of my hockey existence, Sergei Fedorov, my grandpa got me one of my all time favorite birthday presents (cool fact: my birthday was 4 days before Fedorov's and we used to celebrate it on the 14th every year just because I thought it was cool). It was a cardboard tube, looking like nothing more than a big wrapping paper tube. In it was a poster of Fedorov. It was dark with a red frame printed on it. Fedorov was crouched over with his stick on his knees with a look of pure determination on his face and under his skates was "SEЯGEI FEDOЯOV: Captain of THE FIVE." My grandpa had to explain to me what "THE FIVE" was and why the "R" was backwards, but I thought it was the greatest thing ever. I really wish I still had that poster.
Anyhow, in 1997 the Russian Five helped the Wings win their first Stanley Cup in decades as we swept the Flyers. You all remember that series, right? McCarty's goal followed by him jumping into the boards so hard we thought the glass would break? The story of Paul Coffey, who had been traded the previous season for Shanahan, returning as a Flyer and being swept. The celebration. The jubilation. The utter joy from finally winning. I was only 7 at the time, but I had cut up two garbage bags full of red and white construction paper so that we had confetti for the night. And, unfortunately, you also remember the bittersweet taste of that victory the following morning.
I woke up the next morning and went downstairs. My mom ran to me and hugged me, tears in her eyes (like I have now, actually) as she told me what had happened. One of the Wings limos had been in accident after leaving the arena. A car full of Russians. She wasn't sure if Fedorov had been in it, but knew that two of the Russians were hurt pretty badly. I sat and watched the news for what I remember as hours, though I am sure it was not that long. I was crying and the news report finally came on to say that it was Fetisov, Konstantinov, and the team masseur, Sergei Mnatsakanov. The promising career of Konstaninov was over. He and Mnatsakanov were injured very badly and were both wheel chair bound with brain damage. Fetisov was injured as well, though he would return to play the next season and end his fabled career in style with a second straight Cup.
That accident effectively ended the Russian Five. Dmitri Mirinov was brought in the next season and took Konstantinov's place , but the line was just not effective anymore. Eventually it was disbanded. Fetisov left the team not long after, Fedorov had his squabbles, and Larionov continued to lead the way in terms of class and smarts on the ice. Three of five Russians, Fedorov, Larionov, and Kozlov, would win three cups with the Wings. Fedorov would leave for the Ducks, Larionov would go to the Devils for half a season before retiring, and Kozlov would go and play on various teams. Mike Babcock put together an homage to this great unit in later in the decade called the "Swedish Five," featuring Lidstrom, Kronwall, Samuelsson, Zetterberg, and Holmstrom. It was a fun line, but wasn't as effective as the legendary Russian Five was.
To this day, one of the best things I have ever seen in hockey was this line. Seeing them all out on the ice at the same time in red and white in perfect formation as they fell back to play defense is a marvel you don't get to see in today's game. I miss it.
Believe, Detroit. Believe.