Lessons for the Maple Leafs in The Russian Five

Went to see The Russian Five on Wednesday night, an excellent documentary about how the acquisition of five Russian players transformed the Detroit Red Wings into Stanley Cup champions.

Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Kozlov were drafted during the Cold War and scurried out of Soviet control. Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov joined the Wings later, in trades from other teams.

The brilliance was of course in Scotty Bowman, the NHL’s winningest coach, in deciding to use the five as a unit, letting them play Russian-style hockey – no dumping and chasing – just continual puck control and puck movement on top of puck retrieval and a commitment to defence.

There was more to the documentary than acquiring good players, winning the Cup and creating a dynasty. How the Russians left Russia and the tragic car crash that left Konstantinov in a wheel chair are moments of high drama and high emotion.

But there were lessons — delivered both in the documentary in the post-viewing panel — that can be applied to any team trying to make the leap from pretender to contender. And it just so happens Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan was part of the documentary, and part of the panel, so you have to believe he was paying attention.

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Lesson 1: Play defence. Somehow, Shanahan turned the conversation turned to the Raptors, and Kawhi Leonard.

“I watch Kawhi Leonard right now with the Toronto Raptors, and it’s almost as if Scotty coached Kawhi Leonard, because here’s a guy that has a great game and they ask him about all the points he scored, and the first thing he talks about is how important it was for him to defend,” said Shanahan. “He hasn’t changed the team, but he’s altered his teammates. They’re all talking like him. That’s what Scotty did in Detroit, he altered the way the players played. If you came to Detroit, you just knew this is what you had to do: You had to play defence to win and pay attention to the details if you want to get the dessert, which is going up to score goals.”

Lesson 2: Be patient.

The big takeaway for me – and something to keep in mind when it comes to a young Maple Leafs team deemed to be on the rise — was the adversity the Red Wings went through before they finally won the Stanley Cup.

You think of that 1990s team as a bit of a dynasty but it took them a long time to get there, starting with the hiring of first-time GM Jimmy Devellano in the summer of 1982.

From the moment Devellano drafted Steve Yzerman first overall in 1983 amid a great deal of hype, it took another 14 seasons for the Wings to drink from the Cup. Fedorov joined in 1990, and still the Cup was seven years away. Doubts were huge, not just about whether the Wings could win with Russians, but whether they could win at all.

They were a good team for a long time, but they couldn’t seem to get over the hump. The documentary digs into the Wings losing to San Jose in 1994 in the first round when they were highly favoured to win it all.

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“Those are long summers, long years,” said Shanahan. “The difference between losing to San Jose in 94 and winning the Cup in 97 is a six-minute part of this film, but it’s an eternity for hockey management and players.”

Lesson 3: Be tough.

The irony was lost on no one in the audience that Bowman praised Detroit’s acquisition of Shanahan in 1996 as the missing piece that put the Wings over the top.

“That changed our team,” said Bowman. “We had a lot of skill, but so much will. Fisticuffs meant something on any team I ever had. Hockey’s a lot different now. But in those days, you had to stand up and fight for yourself.

“When we were able to get Brendan on our team, a big power winger who could score goals. We had enough of the skill. We needed some toughness and skill together.”

GOT A QUESTION? Email me at askkevinmcgran@gmail.comand I’ll answer it in Friday’s Mailbag.

TORONTO STAR

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