When it comes to knowing the impact of Russian players on the NHL, few coaches can speak to it better than Scotty Bowman. Bowman, during his days in Detroit, helped recreate the five-man unit that the Soviet style of play was built on.
In the documentary Red Army, which hit shelves Tuesday, Bowman talks about his experience utilizing his five Russian players – Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Sergei Fedorov and Slava Kozlov – and what those players meant to the Red Wings at that time. The ‘Russian Five,’ as they came to be known, dominated opponents with their incredible play and helped lead the Red Wings to the 1997 Stanley Cup.
Bowman spoke with THN about the first time he saw the Soviets play, the incredible resiliency of the Fetisov and what modern players he sees some of the Russian style in:
THN: When was the first time you saw the Soviets play?
Scotty Bowman: I saw the Soviets play in 1956. They had a national team that came over to North America, especially Canada. It was mostly Canada at that time. I was with a junior team at that time, the Ottawa Junior Canadiens, a team that had moved from Montreal the year before and we played them. We were junior and they had not many juniors on their team. They had many seniors, guys in their 20s, and that was the first time I had ever seen their national team play. They whooped us pretty good and we were an all-star junior team.
What was the first impression then of the team and what was that compared to the all-star team of NHLers?
They played a different style. The puck possession game, didn’t take a lot of shots, the shots were usually scoring chances, and they utilized all five players on the ice on most of the rushes and most of the time they got the puck. They didn’t turn it over and most of the time it ended with a scoring chance. They played a really team oriented game, and they didn’t have terribly powerful shots. They didn’t shoot a lot. But they could really pass the puck and they played a game that was so much different because it was so much anticipation. It was more like soccer, you see now, where you have to place the ball somewhere the player can catch up to it. It was a different game. A lot of our game came into theirs, and a lot of their game came into ours.
Russian players have been some of the most creative players we’ve seen, and a lot of times people will call them too individualistic. However, in the documentary, it stands out how team oriented they were. When you had the five Russian players in Detroit, did it stand out to you how well they played as a unit?
Especially with (Igor) Larionov and (Slava) Fetisov. They joined the national team as real young players – as did (Sergei) Fedorov, but not for long because he moved to Detroit – they were so strong, they had the pick of any players they wanted, they had to sacrifice a lot, and I think what happened is over a decade of winning championships and Olympics, they didn’t have much competition. They came to North America and saw what the rest of life was like. These players had a lot of resiliency and a lot of sacrifices when they were playing for their national team because it gave them a little bit of a lifestyle – not a great lifestyle like we had here. When I went to Detroit, we had three (Russians). We had (Vladimir) Konstantinov, Fedorov and Slava Kozlov, he was just starting when I got there. Of course we added Larionov and Fetisov. We didn’t have a design to have all five, but we needed a defenseman and we got Fetisov, we had the makings of a good five-man unit. Larionov came in a trade from San Jose, because we had seen him in a trade from San Jose. He and Fetisov played together on the original ‘Russian Five,’ so I didn’t have a lot to do with what they were doing. I just put them together.
We didn’t use them all the time because I felt like someone would decipher how they were doing it. We used them in important times, we used them in the playoffs, and they had a lot of footage in the film that shows the type of players they were. They got together pretty easily, mainly because they had all played a little bit, but Fetisov and Larionov especially, having gone through a decade of that kind of hockey, they wanted to play a puck possession game. They didn’t believe in shooting the puck, they wanted to free up a guy and it was really some type of different hockey.
Fetisov showed an awful lot of resiliency, with what he went through. I didn’t know a lot of the things that went on, but I didn’t know some things in the film. The footage they got, the treatment that he got, the guy was a determined type of guy. Don’t forget, he and Larionov came over to the NHL in the late stages of their career. Larionov was a bit younger, but Fetisov, we were just looking for a depth defenseman and he wasn’t playing in New Jersey. They were sitting him out. We made a call to Lou Lamoriello, gave up a mid-round draft pick, and then Fetisov came in and it was like a breath of fresh air for all our players because he was such a warrior. He was on the last part of his career and he was determined to get on a Stanley Cup team. He did it.
Fetisov is an interesting character and his personality is almost infectious. At first he comes off a bit angry, but by the end you grow to really respect and appreciate him. What was he like in the dressing room?
He was a wonderful guy. He was all hockey, he was friendly – I was the coach and we hit it off pretty good because I had a lot of respect for what he and Larionov had gone through and I knew what they could do for us. Their experience and their knowledge of hockey, their real desire to win a Stanley cup, spilled off on all the players on the team. They weren’t the type of players they were maybe 10 years before that, but he was a great team player, good with some of our younger players, and he was very good with Konstantinov. That was a terrible tragedy. Fetisov’s gone through a lot. His brother passing away, him driving the vehicle. Him getting no respect from the country when he wanted to come to the NHL. He was a determined guy. And I wondered how he could play… he was nearly 41, still playing, and the playoffs are a marathon. Sometimes you gotta play different times of the day, you make trips to the west coast, it’s not an easy two months.
Fetisov says you told the 'Russian Five,' “I don’t know who taught you to play this way, but don’t change anything.” How much of that is accurate? Were they easy to coach?
They were. I remember that. One day I was practicing the power play and I was… I didn’t use them on the power play much. We had other guys… they didn’t shoot a lot. I was blowing the whistle when they had maybe 30 or 40 seconds, and Fetisov and Larionov said, ‘Why don’t you maybe try us on the power play?’ I said OK. He said they needed 10 seconds to go over everything, they huddled together and then it was kind of humorous, because after about 40 seconds, there was no intent to shoot ever. Finally, I blew the whistle, I said, ‘Guys, you’re just killing the penalty. You’re like the rest of us.’ They said, ‘No, no, no. We told the guys not to shoot because we knew if we shot you’d blow the whistle.’
They were very confident guys, they definitely wanted to play a certain style. Larionov left later on and came back. They were brought up with puck possession, they did not like shooting plays, they would take some chances with the puck and there would be some times when they might get burned a little bit. That was offset by the great number of chances they created. They were different kind of players, but boy, they were very competitive. I didn’t want to get involved. I couldn’t decipher what they were doing. The only thing I did, I didn’t want to play them all the time, I thought someone would be able to figure them out so I tried to utilize them at key parts of our playoffs and during the season. They knew what they were doing all the time. A little bit risky sometimes, because the odd pass could be picked off, but the odds were much in their favor.
In Detroit you used Fedorov as a penalty killer and sometimes you would line him up as a defenseman. So much focus is often put on how great the Russian players are offensively, not defensively. What did you see in him -- and the Russian players -- defensively?
The Russian system, when they first came over and played in 1972 and everything else, they didn’t have to check a lot because they wanted to keep the puck. Their defense was their offense. But Fedorov was a different kind of player. He was such a great skater – he could skate forwards and backwards at equal speed. We did have some injuries and I put him back on defense and he was outstanding for about six weeks. Could have been an all-star defenseman, but he developed his offensive skills. When I first went there, he was an unusual type of Russian player.
Larionov was also a superb defensive player. In the late stages of games, he just had such a vision for the game. He and Fetisov together, one as a centerman, the way the Russians would play, they would play down low. The centermen in those days played down low as a third defenseman. The wingers would play up high and circle, drawing the defenseman out of the zone, which was the way they played. But Fetisov and Larionov probably completed more passes to each other. The trick we had with the five man unit is both Larionov and Fedorov were centermen. Larionov said, ‘I’ll play center,’ so he was up a bit higher.
Are there any players now who remind you of the Soviet style of play?
I’m sure some of the guys coming up now, they play more of a puck possession game. I know Chicago, with Toews and Hossa have played together and they play a lot like the Russians. They like to circle around in the offensive zone, try to spot a guy all of a sudden. That’s two that come to my mind. Nowadays, it’s tough in the offensive zone because they have five guys that play close to the scoring area, and it’s hard to get scoring chances because the shot-blocking mode that coaches have players in. It’s a totally different game.
For more information about Red Army, visit the documentary's official website.