Two Minutes for Reading so Good

Two Minutes for Reading so Good

Greg Oliver


The Russian Five come alive in print and film

Posted May 11, 2018

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Russian Five

While the Detroit Red Wings fans look on as other U.S. cities try to lay claim to “Hockeytown” – like Las Vegas! – they can find solace in two recently-published books that look at the club's better times.

The newest of the two releases is The Russian Five: A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery and Courage from Keith Gave (Gold Star Publishing). It looks at how the Wings got Sergei Fedorov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Igor Larionov into their lineup, revolutionizing hockey in many ways, paralleling the changing times in the Soviet Union.

Gave is the right man to tell the story too, as he was a part of it. Before joining the Detroit Free Press newspaper, he spent six years in the United States Army as a Russian linguist working for the National Security Agency during the Cold War.

The Wings began drafting the Russian players in the hope of eventually getting them into North America to play hockey. Enter Gave.

“I felt strongly when the Detroit Red Wings started drafting Soviet players in 1989 that this could be a good book one day,” wrote Gave in an email. “But when they asked me to get involved with a covert mission to Helsinki, Finland, to pass along secret messages to Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov that this would be, one day, the story that would define my career one way or another.”

It's part hockey book, part spy novel, part triumph, part tragedy, especially the post-Stanley Cup limo ride that crippled Konstantinov. Learning the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings that got the Russian Five out of Russia is fascinating, and the passage of time allows for greater perspective. Those that stood up to the Soviet regime were trailblazers, and should Alex Ovechkin finally get his hands on the Stanley Cup this season, as the Russian Five did before him, he should send them all a thank you card.

Keith Gave and the Stanley Cup winning Red Wings in Red Square, August 1997
Keith Gave and the Stanley Cup winning Red Wings in Red Square, August 1997

For those who enjoy a good visual, a documentary, also called The Russian Five, is just starting to make the rounds. “They came together at the same time,” explained Gave. “While I had done much of the original reporting and legwork starting with that trip to Finland in 1989 and continuing as I covered the Russians through the Stanley Cup years, I was able to freshen up and flesh out a lot of the chapters while conducting dozens of interviews with the important characters for the documentary film. I’m grateful that Joshua Riehl, the film’s director, phoned me five to six years ago to get involved as a writer/producer for the film.”

While the book was ready back in December, the decision was made to hold it until March 2018 for release, to better tie-in with the documentary. It is also just now hitting shelves in Russia.

As for the doc, its world premiere was at the Detroit Free Press Film Festival on April 11, before a sold-out audience of more than 2,000 at the Fillmore Detroit.

The subjects were, for the most part, comfortable in English, but Gave had his somewhat rusty Russian skills on hand as well. More important was the greater picture, he said. “My knowledge of the Soviet Union and my admiration and appreciation of Russian people were instrumental in my gaining the trust of all five former Soviets who made up the Russian Five,” he said. “These were people who generally trusted few others, so that was critical, especially when it came to getting them to cooperate with us as we made the film.”

A native of suburban Detroit, the 67-year-old Gave has been involved in the news business for 40 years now, with 15 of those at the Free Press and another 14 teaching journalism. He has been thrilled with the response so far, both with media attention and from readers. “The book has found a far greater audience than I’d ever imagined, selling nationally not just throughout Michigan,” said Gave. “And the book is appealing to readers who have little interest in hockey or the Detroit Red Wings – because it’s not a hockey book, or even a sports book, really. It transcends the game.”

 Keith Gave in Red Square, December 2015

Keith Gave in Red Square, December 2015

INTO THE LOCKER ROOM

Straight from the world of theatre comes another book on the Red Wings. Wait, the theatre?

It turns out that some of Cynthia Lambert's acting buddies loved to hear her tell stories of being a beat reporter for the Detroit Red Wings, so much so that they convinced her to write them down. The result is the self-published Power Play: My Life Inside the Red Wings Locker Room.

Power Play book cover

And if you think the theatre connection in something, how about this from Lambert herself? “Actually, there was someone else who thought I should write a book -- a good friend of mine, Fatima, is a psychic. Throughout the years she would ask me periodically, 'When are you going to write that book?' Finally, the timing seemed right, so I put pen to paper, then fingers to keys.”

Lambert has been away from the newspaper business for 20 years, so when she pitched the book to a traditional publisher, the publishing house declined. Instead, the self-publishing wing of Hay House, Balboa, is the name on the spine. “A favorite author of mine, Dr. Wayne Dyer, published most of his books with Hay House so I went with Balboa and never looked back,” said Lambert via email. “And, I have to say, I am completely satisfied with the product they produced and the ease of working with everyone there. Very professional.”

But what to expect in Power Play? The promotional blurb sets it up nicely:

“Who do you think you are, coming in here? No one wants you here!” These words were screamed by Dave "Tiger" Williams as he stood inches from cub reporter Cynthia Lambert. It was one of the first things said by a professional athlete to the twenty-two-year-old college student as she entered the Detroit Red Wings locker room at Joe Louis Arena after the team suffered a tough loss. Shaken by the verbal assault, Cynthia had to make a decision on the spot--and in front of the watchful eyes of other players and media members. Did she have it in her to weather the prejudicial storms that likely lay ahead, or should she turn tail and run? She didn't run. Instead, she stood her ground and blazed an enviable career path after landing the job of a lifetime—covering the NHL's Detroit Red Wings as the beat writer for The Detroit News.

It was a challenge for Lambert to dive into her memory banks, the introspection welcome and revealing.

“The memory lane I traveled was, indeed, very interesting. You have to remember that I lived this career right out of college. I never took a breath between school and career. I didn't have time to think about what I was doing, what it meant, who it might impact,” explained Lambert. “Writing about my 'past life' was startling to me in many ways. At times it felt like I was writing about someone else, even the parts of my childhood I included. It was strange to see how everything seemed almost destined for what I would do as a first career. Only hindsight can provide that sort of clarity. Mostly, I smiled as I recalled times and wrote about them. Some chapters were harder emotionally, especially the one involving Keith Primeau and what he did for my mother. But it was an honor to tell anyone who might read it what my life was like—and also how accepting, decent and fun the great majority of the players, coaches, scouts, managers, etc., were with me.”

Having been away from the journalism beat, and therefore the locker room, she can't begin to comment on what it's like for women today to cover professional sports; but she can still see the “us versus them” mentality in general. “By nature, reporters and what they report on has an adversarial undertone, but it doesn't have to be that way. To be fair, the reporter needs to also understand that as she or he enters the locker room, they are entering the players' office, so to speak. It is their turf and we must respect that. I tried to live this way during my career; maybe it's why I had next to no issues with the whole locker room situation. Or maybe it's because of the players and sport I covered. Regardless, it's a work relationship for both sides.”

Made up of many shorter chapters, Power Play is “not so much a sports book as it is a life book,” said Lambert, who grew up in Detroit, and is a dedicated follower of the Detroit Tigers from her Grosse Pointe home. The creative process on the book was different than her day job as a PR/Communications Specialist at Henry Ford Health System, writing communications for physicians, nurses and patients. A young adult novel might be in her future, spurred, in part, from another life experience—raising a son who is an avid reader, that also performs comedy, magic and acts in the theatre.

 

UPCOMING BOOK NEWS

Ottawa-area media personality Liam Maguire announced that he was working on his fourth book, this one on the life of Goldie Goldthorpe, the real Ogie Oglethorpe. Burnstown Publishing will be publishing it. “It's my belief this man's life story has potential to be the most inflammatory, controversial, explosive and tragic tale mixed with humour, euphoria, a sense of brotherhood and good times. All of it with an undercurrent of extreme fistic violence on and off the ice that led to arrests, incarcerations and hospital stays when he was stabbed and later shot,” posted Maguire. “No athlete in the history of sports has led a life like his. Many have lived through portions of it, none are comparable including being driven from jail to his ice times and then back to jail again. After a post-game hot meal of course.” It is expected to be out in the spring of 2019.

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As always, I welcome your suggestions, notes, and feedback on other books and authors to feature here. You can email me at goliver845@gmail.com and you can follow me on Twitter @gregmep. For info on my own books, see OliverBooks.ca