This weekend, the Seattle International Film Festival is showing a new documentary called The Russian Five. The film tells the story of five Russian players (Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, and Igor Larionov) who defected from the Soviet Union to join the NHL, won two Stanley Cups, and earned a permanent place in the hearts of people in Detroit.
Inspiration from Tragedy
Writer/Director Joshua Riehl always knew he wanted to tell this story as his first feature film. Fedorov and Konstantinov were his favorite players growing up and he watched the journey of the Russian Five unfold in real-time from his hometown in Port Huron, outside of Detroit.
“When I was growing up, the Red Wings were the thing here,” he told me over the phone. “Everyone here had Red Wing mania.”
Fedorov dazzled Detroit fans with his flash and skill in all aspects of the game while Konstantinov provided the grit and heart that Detroit fans could relate to: a hockey embodiment of the blue-collar work ethic.
“For us in Detroit and me in particular, we identify with that kind of persona and that’s the kind of person who we look up to and admire,” remarked Riehl. “As we started to get little glimpses of his personality with the Terminator/Vladinator character, you can’t help but fall in love with this guy… which was why the accident was such a heart-wrenching tragedy.”
The movie touches on a Detroit hockey tragedy, when Konstantinov was involved in a serious traffic accident after the 1997 Stanley Cup win and was severely injured. It was an accident was a blow to the whole community, as if a family member involved in the crash.
Riehl, who was also involved in a car accident that severely injured his back, drew inspiration from Konstantinov’s slow recovery. The Russian player’s incredible work ethic and refusal to accept life in a wheelchair helped Riehl find the drive to push through his own recovery process.
“Vladdy really served as an inspiration to me to not give up as well. To persevere through the pain, through the rehab so I could pursue my dream of making films. I just felt and knew in my gut that this was the story I wanted to tell for my first feature film when I got the opportunity.”
Telling the Story
Joshua Riehl made the conscious decision early in the production process to avoid making a “hockey film.” He wanted to make a human film about hockey players.
“The heart of the story is the journey to America, the journey of putting aside their differences and becoming a brotherhood in that locker room in order to achieve their goals. It just happens that hockey is the sport.”
The film shows the fierce bond the Russian players had with each other and the gradual relationships they formed with their North American team-mates. Riehl drew from out-of-the box parallels like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a classic film about strangers pulling together to save a village, to help him tell this story in a unique way.
It was also important for Riehl and his team that the finished film would be easy to understand for people who don’t know a lot about hockey. Finding the right balance in how much detail to include was an interesting challenge and, in the end, the team decided that only including necessary information made the film more accessible.
“We wanted to reach hockey fans but we also wanted to reach people who don’t know anything about hockey and might be introduced to the game of hockey through the story.”
One example of this is when the film explains the difference between Soviet-style hockey and North American-style hockey, which was critical to showing how Soviet hockey strategies changed how the Red Wings played the game.
Riehl and his editor had long conversations on how to explain complicated hockey concepts to non-hockey viewers. Through those conversations, they tried to forget the hockey jargon and continued talking until commonly understood phrases like “keep away” emerged that made sense to most audiences.
The Detroit World Premiere
One of the most meaningful moments for Joshua Riehl was at the world premiere of The Russian Five in Detroit. The film was a success, with three sold-out showings. After the premiere, former Red Wings player Darren McCarty met with Riehl backstage with tears on his face. He pulled Riehl in to a hug and said, “Brother, you captured it.”
“For someone who was living in it, who was a big part of the story, to tell me that me and my team captured what it felt like to be a part that locker room was cool.”
Another powerful moment came when Vladamir Konstantinov, who was also at the premier, received a standing ovation from all 2,500 attendees. His daughter messaged Riehl the next morning to say that he had a wonderful time.
“I think that we can elevate the game of hockey to make people realize that this is a sport of human heroes.”
On Hockey in Seattle
This weekend, Joshua Riehl has the opportunity to show his film to people outside of Detroit for the first time at the Seattle International Film Festival. He’s excited to get feedback from an audience that’s not necessarily predisposed to the story and hopes it resonates as a human story and not only a Detroit-hockey story.
He also hopes the The Russian Five will show the people of Seattle what the pursuit of the Stanley Cup can mean for a city: the excitement that it brings to the city and how a city can fall in love with its players as the community gets to know them.
“I’m hoping that the movie excites people, that it makes them want to be a part of the sport of hockey and the pursuit of a Stanley Cup. It’s a really exciting time in the league. I’m excited to see how the NHL continues to embrace Las Vegas, how it will embrace the city of Seattle and bring new fans to the game.”
As for his take on what to name a potential Seattle NHL team? Riehl’s front-runner is the Seattle Sockeyes, because it sounds tough, confident, and reminds him of a hockey punch.
“Sockeyes vs. Canucks just sounds like a good rivalry.”
There are showings for The Russian Five on Saturday 5/19, Sunday 5/20, and Tuesday 5/29 at the Seattle International Film Festival. Joshua Riehl will be at the Saturday and Sunday showings.
Director Biography Joshua Riehl was born and raised in the small town of Port Huron, Michigan and credits his inspiration for filmmaking to Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994), which made him realize that a successful film only needs a small budget and supportive friends. During the recovery from three back surgeries, he honed his taste for style and went on to study filmmaking at the University of Texas in Austin. The influence for the documentaries he creates are stories he cannot stop thinking about, claiming fame and money are not on his radar in the filmmaking process.