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‘The Russian Five’ captures triumphs and tragedies of legendary Red Wings unit

‘The Russian Five’ chronicles the Detroit Red Wings dynasty through the eyes of Vladimir Konstantinov, Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov and Vyacheslav Kozlov.

Moments after The Russian Five documentary film debuted at a film festival in Detroit in April, director Joshua Riehl was backstage preparing to appear on a Q&A panel when he was approached by former Detroit Red Wing Darren McCarty, who had tears rolling down his face. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘Brother, you captured it,’ ” Riehl said. “ ‘You captured what it felt like to be in that locker room.’ For someone who was in that locker room to give his stamp of approval meant a lot. The emotion was real. It wasn’t fake. Nothing is fake about Darren McCarty.”

That was Riehl’s second favorite moment from the night the movie debuted at the Freep Film Festival three months ago. The first was when Riehl realized that Vladimir Konstantinov was in the audience. That’s because Konstantinov was the main inspiration behind The Russian Five, which chronicles the Detroit Red Wings dynasty through the eyes of Konstantinov, Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov and Vyacheslav Kozlov from the moment Konstantinov and Fedorov were part of the best single-team draft in NHL history in 1989 to the back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997 and ’98 and the limousine accident that robbed Konstantinov of his career and left him permanently disabled. When Riehl was a 19-year-old college freshman, he too was involved in a car accident that broke his spine. That was followed by multiple surgeries over the next five years. A native of nearby Port Huron, Riehl found that he could often only wear a Konstantinov sweater over his back brace and that got him to thinking and gaining perspective. So when he decided to go to film school in Texas, he decided his first full-length documentary would be about the Russian Five.

The process that led to the five Russians playing together on Detroit was painstaking and an excruciatingly long time in the making and so was the film about their days in Detroit. The 35-year-old Riehl started the process after graduating from film school in 2012 and after years of stops and starts, began to gain traction on the project. The result is a 100-minute masterpiece that weaves together the story of the five players in a compelling way. The film moves at a quick pace and manages to piece it together from the cloak-and-dagger efforts to spirit Fedorov and Konstantinov out of the former Soviet Union to the trials and triumphs they experienced to how they dealt with the limousine accident and won another Stanley Cup without Konstantinov in the group.

The film features interviews with all the major players, including former Red Wings president Jim Lites, former coach Scotty Bowman and journalist Keith Gave, a former linguist for the National Security Agency who later became a sportswriter and first contacted Fedorov and Konstantinov, then chronicled their careers for the Detroit Free Press and later wrote a book about the saga with the same name as the film. There are also some interesting scenes with actor Jeff Daniels and some great perspective from Denise Harris, a flight attendant on the Red Wings’ private plane. The players, minus Konstantinov, all contributed their thoughts, with the most dramatic being a scene where Fedorov is asked about the limo crash after the first Cup in 1997. In the interview he makes it clear he still doesn’t want to discuss it and that more than two decades later, he is still profoundly affected by it. But by far the two biggest “stars” of the film are former Red Wings GM Jimmy Devellano and McCarty, both of whom speak with candor and reverence about the Russian players.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the film was the use of “photo realism” to capture of many of the events. Rather than try to tell the defection stories with through re-creation, Riehl used a series of animated shots, which gave the scenes a real old Soviet feel. It’s the touches such as those and the attention to detail that make the film a must see for hockey fans of all stripes, particularly those interested in history.

Riehl said the film has been seen now by about 4,500 people, with the next showing at a film festival in Traverse City in August. (Unfortunately, the Toronto International Film Festival passed on it, largely because it now shows only world premiers.) But Riehl has been encouraged by the feedback he has received on it to this point. And he said if he makes another hockey film, he would like to document McCarty’s life journey.

“The pain that he suffered during his hockey career drove him to alcohol abuse and drug addiction,” Riehl said. “But he found something that works for him and he’s been sober for two years. I feel like that guy has an awesome redemption story in there somewhere.”

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