[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This was written for The Broad Street Bully, a blog and podcast my friend Drew and I started based off of our mutual interest in the Philadelphia Flyers. See it on http://broadstreetbully.net.]
Think back. The old NHL. 1997. The Flyers had just made it to the Stanley Cup finals. They were awaiting a white hot Red Wings team. The NHL might have been expecting a pretty solid playoff matchup. But, as history goes, the Flyers were severely overmatched. After getting swept out, the Red Wings claimed their first of back to back Stanley Cups. The big names everyone remembers were always there: Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Osgood, Nicklas Lidstrom, and the list goes on. But some of the less well known names were the ones that made the biggest difference.
If any of you played NHL ’95 and didn’t try to trade for some of the Red Wings, then you are a liar and I don’t believe you.
The Red Wings’ Russian Five consisted of Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov manning the blue line, while the forwards consisted of Igor Larionov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, and Sergei Federov.
In the NHL, the forward line was usually not matched up with the same defensive pairing every shift. However, in Russia, this was much more common. This line was called the Russian Five because they would take their shifts together when it was necessary. Former Red Wings’ coach and current NHL Senior Advisor of Hockey Operations for the Blackhawks (according to Wikipedia), Scotty Bowman, said the secret was not over saturating the ice with the special line.
“My main trick was not to unite all five Russians every time … I was worried that the opponents would be able to figure out how to play against them. Often, I would wait until the second or even third period to get them out on the ice together. It always got other teams confused.”
The 90s NHL operated under a pretty common method of play: the dump and chase. The team would cross the centerline, dump the puck deep into the attacking zone, and then send the forwards in to chase after it. If the puck was dumped into the left corner, it was the left wing’s responsibility to retrieve it and set up in the zone. The Russian Five turned that notion upside down. In a similar style to the International and Olympic teams, Fedorov and Kozlov would switch their wing positions up to confuse the defense when they had to. The switch would confuse defensive assignments and give the Red Wings an advantage over most other NHL teams.
“When those five guys were on the ice, opponents didn’t know how to play against them … I remember Larionov and his linemates always saying that if you have the puck, you control the game. They came from the same school of hockey and shared a similar mentality. They understood each other perfectly.”
Each specific member of the line brought something to its success. Federov was fast and had the scoring touch which helped him rack up points in the NHL. Konstantinov could lay big hits while also being responsible defensively. Larionov was the center who defined the term playmaker. And then you had Fetisov, a solid defenseman, and Kozlov, who could thread passes but also had a heavy slapshot.
The Russian Five created an identity for the Red Wings during the 90s and started to change the NHL in terms of offense. The style of play for the Red Wings during this time, which focused on quick passing and puck possession, became the Red Wings key for success. And, in today’s game, that style is becoming more and more the norm. The Red Wings, and Scotty Bowman, were before their time. It’s like they went ahead to 2015, got the Sports Alamanc, and knew what is was going to take to have success at the NHL level.
Success, of course, that took the Red Wings all the way to back to back Stanley Cup victories in 1997 and 1998.
In a quote from Fedorov:
“We played the style of hockey that we understood and enjoyed … I remember often when we were on the ice, we would spend most of the time in the offensive zone. We dominated the game because this style was unusual at that time and teams didn’t know how to defend against the guys who constantly move the puck around.”
So, where is the Russian Five at now?
Vladimir Konstantinov – While celebrating their Stanley Cup victory in 1997, Konstantinov and Fetisov hired a limousine to take them home. The driver, who had a suspended license for drunk driving, lost control of the limo and hit a tree. Konstantinov spent weeks in a coma and suffered from serious head injuries and paralysis. He was forced into retirement and never played another NHL game. In 1998, after the Red Wings won their second Stanley Cup, they still considered Konstantinov a player in the NHL and a member of their team, and included him in the celebrations. The NHL allowed him to have his name engraved as part of 1998’s team after the Red Wings petitioned for it.
Viacheslav Fetisov – After retiring from playing in the NHL, he was an assistant coach with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, where he won a Stanley Cup as a coach. He’s currently a member of the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia. He was president of CSKA Moscow in the KHL and a key member of the bidding committee to bring the 2014 Winter Olympics to Sochi.
Igor Larionov – He is currently a professional wine merchant that sells wines out of Australia and California.
Vyacheslav Kozlov – He’s been making his way around KHL teams and it doesn’t appear he has stopped playing as of yet.
Sergei Federov – Currently manages the KHL’s CSKA Moscow. He splits his summers between Detroit and Miami.
The players current endeavors were also pulled from Wikipedia