How did the sport of hockey affect political history and our nation’s foreign relations? In this vlog, Professor David Onyon, M.A., discusses the impact of the Russian Five-five Russian Hockey stars who broke the mold and risked their lives to play professional hockey in the United States’ National Hockey League following the Cold War.


– [MUSIC PLAYING] You might be wondering what hockey has to do with strange American stories. We place a lot of emphasis in sports and our politics. Think about the United States and basketball and what happened in 2004. We won the bronze medal and what immediately happened? Every professional basketball player that was American signed up to commit to play for the next three Olympics and we won gold beating every team. That’s exactly the way the Soviet Union was in the late 20th century. They wanted to demonstrate their superiority to the world. The way they chose to do that, one of the ways, was their sports specifically ice hockey and the Soviet Red Army team won the Olympic gold medal in 56, 64, 68, 72, 76, 84, and 88. Parenthetically in 60, 80, it was the US that beat them. But that’s a different story. That’s next year’s story. They revolutionized the way hockey was played. Specifically what became known as the Russian 5. Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, and Vladimir Konstantinov. All five of these players played for the Detroit Red Wings in the 1990s and changed the game of hockey forever. The problem was how were we going to get them over here to play. Sergei Fedorov was drafted in the fourth round in 1989 by the Detroit Red Wings. The problem was the Soviets had the Iron Curtain. They would not allow any player to come over and join them. They were everywhere the team went internationally. You had KGB agents and you had spies making sure that Soviets stayed with the team and never traveled. So the Red Wings call a beat writer for the Detroit Free Press by a man by the name of Keith Gaines, who just so happened in the 70s was a Russian analyst for the NSA station in West Berlin. So he could speak Russian. So the Red Wings invite gaines to lunch and basically say, hey, we will pay you six figures to go to Helsinki where the Soviets are playing in a pre-season tournament. And just tell Sergey Fedorov and Vladimir Constantinov that we’ve drafted them. And then they can come over here and play. We just need a letter. Now the journalist hesitated. Your journalistic standards, ethics supposed to be covering the team. Now the team offered to pay him as like a subversive pay plus if he gets caught he’s basically going to Siberia when they ever see or hear from him again. That’s the way the Soviet Union works. But he decides to go. And in August 1989, he cashes in some air miles. He flies to Helsinki, Finland. He gets off the plane and then he just finds somebody and says where is hockey being played and they take him on to the arena. He has no ticket. He wanders around into the building. He wanders through the first period of the game finds the promoter that organized the festivities and tells them, hey, I’m an American reporter. I work in Detroit. I happen to be over here on vacation. The Red Wings drafted Fedorov and Constantinov. Is there a chance that I could meet them and talk to them? And of course, the guys are excited about press being there takes it. And after the game, he is brought down into the locker room and he’s able to meet Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Constantinov. And he basically shows them a list of all the players, the Red Wings drafted and says, “Hey, look Sergei, you were drafted right here in the fourth round. Vlad, you were drafted right here in the 11th round. And he talks to them. And he notices off to his shoulder the KGB agents standing there watching everything he says and at the same moment he hands them a media guide of the red wings with those letters written in Russian that basically said we drafted you. We will pay you. In fact, come to the United States and play for the Detroit Red Wings. He gives them the letter, he gives them the folder. They’re flipping through it. Sergei Fedorov sees the letter and just keeps flipping completely stone-faced. He knows that if he’s caught, both he and this American reporter are going to be in trouble. So he leaves, he flies back home. Nothing happens. That Christmas, the Russian team is in Chicago and the Red Wings meet with Sergei Fedorov. They’ve got a car in the basement of the Drake Hotel. They’ve got a contract. They’ve got money. They’re ready to hightail out of Chicago Sergei Fedorov. Sergei Fedorov says not yet. I want to come. But not yet. He wants to finish up his military contract which expires on January 1st. So he doesn’t want to become a deserter and have the military coming after him. So fast forward to July 1990. The Russian team is in Portland, Oregon. The Red Wings greenlights their immigration reform. They fly out there and they’re waiting at the hotel and literally this is the scene. You’ve got a sedan in the back alley of the hotel. You’ve got a driver. You’ve got Jim White sitting in the lobby and they’re basically waiting for Sergei Fedorov to arrive back to the hotel from the game. He walks off the team bus, walks into the lobby, goes up to Jim White and just casually says “you ready to go Jim?” And they just get up and they walk through the kitchen. They walk out the back alley. They get in the car, and they get on the plane and fly back to Detroit. When they get back to Jim White’s house. Phone rings. It’s the State Department. Jim White, do you know where Sergei Fedorov is? Yes, I do. OK phone hangs up. Three minutes later, a Russian diplomat calls him yelling out in Russian. Why did you kidnap Sergei Fedorov? We want Sergei Fedorov. It basically says Sergei gets on the phone and basically says, I want to play hockey. I’m not coming back. And they file paperwork and Sergei Fedorov starts the 1990 season for the Detroit red wings. The next man Vladimir Constantinov also known as Vlad the Impaler because of his hits that he would unleash on the ice is a different story. He’s a family man. He’s got a wife. He’s got a kid. And he has a 25 year contract with the Red Army. If he defects to come play hockey, He will be considered a deserter which would classify him as a felon which means he won’t be able to get a visa to come work in the US. So they’ve got to figure out how do we get him out of his military contract to come play. And so the red wings use the help of a Soviet journalist by the name of Valerie Mataev who basically concocts some plan. I will take money. And I will bribe doctors and we will get Constantinov diagnosed with an incurable disease that will get him released from his military contract. So he flies over to Moscow. He’s got about $60,000 in cash and he’s sitting there getting to pay these doctors in the hospital diagnosed him with some sort of stage four brain cancer that he’s going to die. He can’t play. The Red army is not going to fall for that. They basically take it to a military hospital. They want all the tests redone to re-diagnose these this decision when they come out. So he, of course, the room says, hey, I need more money. So they just ship more with more money, more cash to Moscow. And he bribes military doctors. They’ve almost got it figured out. But the last military doctor doesn’t want cash. He wants a car. He wants the biggest American car You can get. Well, this is Detroit. So it’s like, OK, so the red wings go and they buy a Caprice Classic. That’s a 1990s big boat car, put in Mataev’s name. They ship it off to Moscow. They give him his car. They all sign off. He’s got cancer. He’s dying. He’s never going to be able to play again. So they’re beginning to walk out. They’re headed to the airport. Vlad’s not quite sure this is real. They put his passport on a no-fly list. So they can’t fly us. So they go back in. They call say, hey, we can try and get out by train before they shut the borders. At this point, if you’re old enough to remember history. This is the exact moment when the Soviet army unleashed the coup against Gorbachev and the fall of Soviet Union. So as they’re trying to get out all of a sudden you have demonstrations, you have tanks you have the military presence all through the streets of Moscow. I mean, the military is taking over and they can’t get out. So they get caught up in the midst of the protests when they finally get to the car. Windows are broken, briefcases stolen. The briefcase has all his medical paperwork, all the fake document plans, his passports, and still about $20,000 to bribe him. They’re like somebody Stole this. It’s going to turn up at the KGB. We are all dead. They get a call. I’m a big hockey fan. I found your briefcase. I give it back to you. And of course, they thought like this was. And then and they get a call to go leave to a park at midnight they’re like, this is the KGB setting the stage. They’re going to come and track us and take us over. When they get out there it actually was just a hockey fan that happened to have a briefcase. So they signed the glove signed sticks signed a jersey. He gave the briefcase still with the bribe cash and everything still in it and now they’ve got everything back. So they call the Red Skins and say that we can’t get out. All week, I can’t get into the US, I can only get into Budapest. So they get on a train and go to Budapest. Jim White gets on the plane, flies to D.C., picks up the immigration lawyers. And then they fly to Budapest. They work on immigration paperwork. They fly back. Vlad is able to come to the US both with his wife and his daughter. So he is not coming to start the 91 season with his entire family. The next person that comes, Vyacheslav Kozlov was the 15-year-old hot shot in the Red Army. At 15 years of age with comparisons to Wayne Gretzky. Even if you don’t know hockey, you know him. He was supposed to be better than Wayne Gretzky to the point that he had a $250,000 contract with the Red Army at 17 years of age that they were paying him that in the Soviet block to play hockey. He was that good. He had no intention of coming over to the US. But he toyed with the remnants that they drafted him in the third round in 1990. Every time, the red wings would come and meet him on an international stage it was like, let’s go drive a car. He just wanted to drive the sports car the red wings rented wherever they were. That’s how he learned to drive was basically driving the sports cars the red wings would rent. The would say come components over to the US and you can buy whatever car you want. Instead, he said at 19 years of age, one month into the season in 1991, he wrecks the car killing his best friend and teammate, and puts him in the hospital. His face is mangled. He loses the peripheral vision in his left eye. I don’t even know if he’s ever going to play again. The Red Army stops paying. He’s in a hospital bed. They don’t care about him. The Red Wings send over their agents, send over their doctors. They’re with him in the hospital 24/7. Again, Mataev gets involved. OK we’re going to bribe these doctors again. But this one’s a little bit more believable that he’s never going to be able to play again. After all, Look at him. Look at him. He can’t see, brain damage in in his face. And again, you have the same situation. They bribe. They get him over here. He’s released from his contract. He’s playing. He starts playing in the spring of that season of 1991. In March, the Soviets take the Red Wings to court. Basically they hired lawyers and they sued the red wings for stealing their players. After all, they lost Fedorov Constantinov and now Kozlov. Eventually the Russians have no money. They can’t pay the lawyers and the case is dropped from the court system. They now have three of what becomes known as the Russian five and he is miraculously healed. At one point, the general manager for the Russian army just travelling happens to watch a Red wings game sees Fedorov, Constantinov and Kozlov playing and he looks at the general manager of the Red Wings and goes… Looks like Constantino is still sit. He was kind of clueless going to be played a bad game that day. So they still had issues. The other two players that joined the red wings were not the not the fet out of the Soviet Union. Right here, Viacheslav Fetisov was a captain of the Red Army team in the 1980s. He is drafted in 1983 by the New Jersey devils. He has promised because he’s at the end of his career, He’s in his 30s now He’s not the prime of his early 20s that he’s going to be released from his Red Army contract to come play. And he basically fights for four years. And finally he’s allowed to come over in 1989 and play for the devils. He just doesn’t play a system. He has trouble with it. And eventually in the summer of 1995, he is traded to the Detroit red wings to help be a mentor to Federov, Constantinov and Kozlov. The final piece of the puzzle is Igor Larionov, center from the Red Army. Now he comes over and starts playing in 1989 but he’s still under Red Army contracts and the way the Soviets were so desperate for cash that they actually let their top players come play and 80% of their contract went back to the Soviet Red Army. So he’s playing he’s not he’s playing for three million a year. And he basically gets about $3,000 a month, all the rest of it goes back to the Soviet Union. So when the Soviet Union falls in 1992, he plays as a free agent and goes and plays in Switzerland. So that his contract will expire because he’s now looking at Federov who’s making eight million a year. He’s looking at Kozlov who is making like five million a year. He’s like this is ridiculous. Why am I not making all this money going back to Russia if all my compatriots are coming up here to play. So he goes and plays and comes back and signs as a free agent with San Jose in 1993. And again, he doesn’t fit. See, the Russian system was a five man unit. You have three forwards and two defensemen but they play as a single unit. At North American Hockey, You have a foreign line, and you have defensive pairs. And they don’t play together. Forwards change out, defense changes, but they don’t change out the five man unit. The red wings and the Soviet system did. So finally, in October of 1995, The red wings traded Viacheslav Fetisov. So now you have what is called the Russian five there in Detroit. And for the very first time in October 27, 1995, they played together for the first time.


They played for two years. The 95, 96 seasons 96-97 season as a five-man unit and completely changed the game of hockey. In 97, They won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1954 for Detroit and if there are any Detroit fans here, That’s a big deal. I’m a Stars fan, I hate Detroit But that’s a different story. Everybody wants to play this style of game. Now their festivities were short lived three days after winning the 97 Stanley Cup. A limo carried Vladimir Constantine off his wrecked and putting him in a wheelchair. He will never play again. Back when they relive-when they re-win the cup in 98 they actually have Vladimir on the ice in his wheelchair carrying the cup in celebration for that. I think you’ve seen that one of the But everybody wants to play the Russian style. It’s called puck control and you still hear it to this day. In fact, they so revolutionize the game that these are some of the top players in the NHL today and they are all Russians. Alexander Benjamin just won the Stanley Cup just last year Evgeni Malkin and the penguins over there. You don’t like the penguins. Vladimir Tarasenko for the blues. The top score in the NHL this year, Kucherov right here. And then, of course, you got Stars players. The game of hockey was forever changed and it was changed because sports are just as political as they are entertaining. And they got involved in Cold War espionage and smuggled three players out of the Soviet Union to come and play for them. So if you’ve got some free time after the spring break, We can all fly to Michigan and watch this movie.


Does anybody want to go to Michigan? And that’s the story of how the game of hockey was changed at the end of the Cold War with the Detroit Red Wings.

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