When the Detroit Red Wings were rebooting their franchise after more than two decades of relative futility, they knew the best place to find world-class players who could help turn things around more quickly were conscripted servants behind the Iron Curtain.
All they had to do then was make history by drafting them, then figure out how to get them out. That’s when the Wings turned to Keith Gave, the newsman whose clandestine mission to Helsinki, Finland, was the first phase of a years-long series of secret meetings from posh hotel rooms to remote forests around Europe to orchestrate their unlawful departures from the Soviet Union.
One defection created an international incident and made global headlines. Another player faked cancer, thanks to the Wings’ extravagant bribes to Russian doctors, including a big American car. Another player who wasn’t quite ready to leave yet felt like he was being kidnapped by an unscrupulous agent. Two others were outcast when they stood up publicly against the Soviet regime, winning their freedom to play in the NHL only after years of struggle.
They are the Russian Five: Sergei Fedorov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Igor Larionov. Their individual stories read like pulse-pounding spy novels. The story that unfolded after they were brought together in Detroit by the masterful coach Scotty Bowman is unforgettable.