Twenty years ago, hockey took a major step in its evolution when the Red Wings put five Russian players together as one unit of three forwards and two defensemen for the first time.
The "Russian Five," as the deployment of forwards Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov and Vyacheslav Kozlov, and defensemen Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov became known, debuted Oct. 27, 1995, against the Calgary Flames and helped the Red Wings score two of their three goals.
Kozlov and Larionov each scored in Detroit's 3-0 victory against Calgary, but hockey ended up being the biggest winner, as the game changed for the better in response to the transcendental nature of the Russian Five, the brainchild of Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman.
Together, the Russians helped Detroit to a historic 1995-96 season, when it won an NHL-record 62 games and finished one point short of tying the record for most in a season (132), set by the Montreal Canadiens in 1976-77. More importantly, the Russian Five was a big part of the Red Wings' first Stanley Cup championship in 42 years.
"My main trick was not to unite all five Russians every time," Bowman said. "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."
In Russia, it was common practice to use the same five players as a unit, but in North America, it was incredibly rare to see a forward line paired with the same defensemen on a regular basis.
The players who formed the Russian Five found their way to Detroit in various ways, but it was the acquisition of Larionov, who would become the unit's center, that allowed the plan to be put in motion by Bowman.
Few people could find logic in Bowman's decision to trade Ray Sheppard, who had scored 150 goals for the Red Wings in the previous four seasons, to the San Jose Sharks for Larionov, 34, early in the '95-96 season.
Bowman had a plan though, and it worked brilliantly.
"At that time, we had too many right wings," Bowman said. "The Sharks gave me a massive list of players to choose from in exchange for Sheppard. I wasn't looking for a center, but when I saw Larionov's name, I thought that it would be great to get a player with such enormous hockey IQ and put all five Russian guys together".
In the '90s, most NHL teams played a simple game: Dump the puck into the offensive zone and forecheck. Left and right wings played strictly on their side of the ice.
The Russian Five changed all of that, emulating the style of the Soviet teams that dominated world and Olympic competition during the previous three decades with a combination of speed and puck control. Fedorov and Kozlov, the wings, would often switch sides to confuse opponents and create scoring chances.
"When those five guys were on the ice, opponents didn't know how to play against them," said Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, who was in his second season as an assistant GM with Detroit when Bowman put together the Russian Five. "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".
The unit played an instrumental role as the Red Wings developed into one of the most dominant teams of the decade and won the 1997 Stanley Cup.
"We played the style of hockey that we understood and enjoyed," said Fedorov, who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 9. "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."
Each member of the Russian Five dazzled in his own way. Fedorov, the first European-born player to win the Hart Trophy, provided the fast skating, breathtaking skill and goal production. Konstantinov was a master of the big hit and solid defensive play. Larionov was all about sophisticated playmaking. Fetisov was an all-around dependable defenseman who was also great offensively. Kozlov was a sublime passer with an elite slap shot.
The five Russians not only changed the way the game was played, but they also changed the identity of the Red Wings in the process. The unit's style of play, which emphasized movement, quick passing and possession of the puck, has become the calling card for the organization.
"Twenty years ago, these guys brought a completely new style of hockey to the NHL," Bowman said. "Nowadays, a lot of teams play a similar type of a game. When the Russian Five were on the ice, you had to have your popcorn ready because you knew that you were in for a treat. They didn't just play hockey; they created masterpieces on the ice."