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HARRISON – It’s a rare occasion in life when an individual finds himself/herself in the position of being the only right person, at the right time, in the right place, to do the right thing. However, that is precisely where Detroit Free Press reporter Keith Gave found himself after the Detroit Red Wings drafted two Russian hockey players in June 1989 during the National Hockey League entry draft at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minnesota [the site where the Mall of America now stands]. Sergei Fedorov was drafted in the 4th round, and Vladimir Konstantinov in the 11th round.
The stickler was that, for a Russian hockey player at that time, the only way into the NHL was to defect.
In 2013-2014, Gave collaborated in the production of the documentary film “The Russian Five” and used his own personal experiences in the events that film explored, along with his pre-filming interview notes, to pen a book about a truly fantastical series of events that would forever change the face of the Detroit Red Wings and ultimately the NHL. Gave’s book of the same name came off the press in March 2018, and the documentary was released in April 2018 with film writing credits going to Gave, Joshua Riehl and Jason Wehling. The film was made available for purchase in June of this year, and that has led the retired reporter and Houghton Lake resident to begin touring the state, including the Harrison District Library, to promote the book by sharing his truly unique story.
As Gave tells it, that story began when he was approached by Jim Lites, executive vice president of the Detroit Red Wings. About a month after the 1989 draft, Lites called Gave and the two met for soup and sandwich at the Elwood Café on Woodward Avenue. There, Lites sought Gave’s help as a courier between the Red Wings and Russian hockey players who had been drafted, with the goal of them defecting to the United States to play for the Detroit team. Lite’s plan was to have Gave travel to Helsinki, Finland where the Russian team would be playing.
It should be known here that Gave had served six years in the U.S. Army where he learned Russian in the early 1970s and also attended six months of spy school. He then spent three years stationed at a West Berlin state-of-the-art spy station “listening post” where he listened to Russian communications, “keeping track of the bad guys on the other side of the wall.” Gave said that while his group spoke Russian very well after their class, it became passive as he wrote down what he heard. That Russian linguist experience, coupled with his knowledge of the Russian team, made him uniquely qualified to take on the covert task of contacting the Russian players in person and sneaking them a letter saying the Red Wings management would help in any way to get them to the U.S. and playing hockey.
Now, any ethical journalist knows that money cannot change hands between the reporter and any person or entity being covered, as it taints the credibility of that reporting as well as exposing the reporter’s employer to liability concerns. In this case that applied because Gave was the hockey reporter for the Detroit Free Press, and thus, he made it clear to Lites that professional ethics would not allow him to take money from a subject source.
“I told him I would not do it,” Gave said. “If it became known I was doing favors for money, my career would be done.”
Gave said he had some misgivings because he was aware of reporters who got caught up in passing messages between operatives, and things did not go well.
However, after continuing to ponder the exceptional situation and the amazing opportunity being laid at his feet, Gave finally told Lites he would be willing to serve as the courier, but only as a private citizen and on the condition that he would take no money. Gave said that meant cashing in air miles and funding his own flight to Helsinki as well as his lodging.
“I also got first dibs on all things Russian – forever,” Gave said.
That scenario was agreeable to Lites, and Gave began what had to be called the most exciting non-assignment of his career.
“Days later I was on my way to Helsinki,” he said.
When his flight landed in Helsinki around 4 p.m. and he knew the Soviets would be playing the Finnish Hockey Club at 7 p.m. somewhere in the city and Gave had to find out where. He had to find a nearby hotel, check in, get to the arena, get in and find a promoter or event sponsor who could get him down to meet the players – and hopefully bring them out so he could interview them. Then he could give them the letter he had written in Russian explaining that the Red Wings were willing to do anything to help them defect and come over to North America and play for the Red Wings, and would pay Fedorov the same salary being paid to team captain Steve Yzerman, plus $25,000 a year for his family at home. Gave had tucked the letter into a media guide which listed the global draft picks, including those of the Detroit Red Wings.
“Cue the “Mission Impossible” song,” Gave said, adding that he was starting to get nervous because there was no guarantee of success.
Gave immediately checked into the Radisson Blu Hotel, across the street from the arena where the Russian team was playing. He went directly to the arena, as the Soviet players were deboarding their bus. He walked inside, showed his NHL credentials and asked for a promotor of the event who could get him access to the players. Gave was told it might be difficult, as the Soviets guard their players carefully.
Gave explained where he was from, that his home team had drafted two of the players and he wanted to interview them for his newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, back home. The promoter said he would give no guarantees but would try. Then in the middle of the third period, gave was taken downstairs to wait in an area about 12 feet from the door that led to the Soviet players’ dressing room
After a lengthy wait, the promoter came out with towel-clad Sergei Fedorov and Konstantinov [apparently yanked dripping wet from the showers]. When Gave introduced himself to the players, he showed them the guide and pointed out the draft list.
“There you are, Sergei, 4th round and 74th overall,” Gave said. “Sergei just stood there and did not show an ounce of emotion – guy would be a great card player. Then I showed Vlad, I said: ‘Vlad, here you are, 11th round and 212th overall,’”
While Fedorov was wise to the ways of Soviet control and revealed no emotional response, his companion was another story.
“Vladdy was bouncing around like the kid who got the shiny new bike for Christmas,” Gave said. “I learned later that this was the moment they learned they had been drafted by the Red Wings.”
Gave said he then told the players that he realized it was not a proper time for an interview, but that perhaps he could call sometime for a proper interview which would allow the Detroit fans to learn a bit about them, and that perhaps they would come to play in Detroit someday. Gave told Fedorov that in the meantime he would work on his Russian so that the next time Gave met him, he would be better spoken.
Gave then gave the players some lapel pins, some business cards and other Red Wings trinkets. At the end of the visit he gave them the media guide – a 5-by-8 inch book a half-inch thick – that contained all the history, stats and facts about the Red Wings. As conversation continued, Gave realized the pages weren’t well sealed and it was visible that something was inside. Fedorov causally perused the book, noticed the letter inside, closed the book and subtly shifted his hands behind his back. That was when Gave knew it was time to make his exit. He thanked them, wished them luck in the future, and hopefully they would meet again soon.
These were the coldest of Cold War days and all international interactions were suspect – a time when Soviet rule meant arbitrary punishment for infractions plus additional harm to family or social contacts. Fedorov had an earlier chance to defect but had declined out of fear for his family, and he now was acutely aware of the danger in that moment – as was Gave. He said it was a moment that could have resulted in the end of their hockey careers, and ending up in a gulag somewhere.
“Being in Helsinki, a Western country, I felt safe,” Gave said. “If it had been in Moscow, I wouldn’t have done it.”
With that, Gave left the arena and his covert task behind – except for the next four to five hours he spent walking around Helsinki, looking over his shoulder to be certain he wasn’t being followed.
With his mission accomplished, the seeds had been planted, and gardener Gave then had no choice but to wait and see what – if anything – would grow.
Gave’s moment of reward materialized 11 months later, in July 1990, when Jim Lites called Gave during dinner at his home in Dearborn and said: “I’m in Mr. Illich’s airplane flying back from Portland, Oregon – guess who’s sitting next to me.” Gave asked who, was told Sergei Fedorov, and Gave said: “Great!”
That’s when Gave pushed his plate away, started taking notes, then called his editor to ask what was going on page 1 the next day. When the editor asked why he cared, Gave said that whatever the editor had, he was going to blow it out of the water. There was a Soviet defector on his way to Detroit from the Goodwill Games in Portland, Oregon, coming to play hockey for the Detroit Red Wings. The editor said he had 35 minutes to file his story and hung up the phone.
“I hung up the phone, got my computer out and started typing furiously,” Gave said. “Thirty-five minutes later I sent my story. At 6:15 in the morning, the Free Press landed on my doorstep. And there was the story – page 1, above the fold – ‘Soviet Defector on His Way To Detroit to Play Hockey for the Red Wings.’”
In his truly fascinating and detailed talk, Gave went on to chronicle the sometimes humorous and always danger-ridden steps that followed the implementation of the defection plans, including bribery, deception, intrigue and the self-defeating Russian corruption that led to the defection of not only Fedorov and Konstantinov, but also Vyacheslav Kozlov, Igor Larionov and Viacheslav Fetisov.
Gave also spoke of the devastating limo accident after the Red Wings reclaimed the Stanley Cup in 1997 which left Vladimir Konstantinov wheelchair bound – never to play hockey again. He also spoke of the Red Wings’ growth brought by the influx of the five Russian players, and the team’s retaining the Stanley Cup in 1998 and winning it again in 2002.
In 1997, team captain Steve Yzerman had skated the cup around the ice.
“One of the coolest moments I’ve ever witnessed, was in 1998 when the Red Wings won in Washington [against the Capitals] at the MCI Center,” Gave said. “They gave the cup to Yzerman, but he didn’t skate it around. He held the cup over his head and turned a 360 at center ice and let everybody get the pictures they needed. While he was doing that, the Red Wings players parted and wheeled Konstantinov up to center ice. Yzerman skated over and put the Stanley Cup on Vladdy’s lap. Steve stayed on one side of it and he got Igor Larionov on one handle of the wheelchair and Slav Fetisov on the other, and they pushed the Stanley Cup around the ice, and the whole team followed them. And I’ll tell you what – there was not a dry eye in the house that night. It was unbelieveable.”
It was apparent that the team held Konstantinov in high regard, as perhaps the player most respected by the entire team.
“He’s one of the finest men you’ll ever meet, a great man, great father, a great teammate, friend and so on,” Gave said. “If you asked me who I’d want with me in the foxhole when the bullets are flying – I could twirl a hockey stick around … and wherever it landed it would be pointed at one of those guys I’d be perfectly content with in that Red Wings dressing room. Not just the hockey players, everybody. But if you put a gun to my head and I could take just one guy, I’m taking Vladimir Konstantinov. So would everybody in that dressing room – he’s the guy they’d pick. Vladdy’s just a really fine man.”
On the lighter side, the book’s cover bears a review blurb by famed Detroit Free Press reporter and author Mitch Albom, with whom Gave said he worked for 15 years, sitting in the press box together. As part of his presentation, Gave joked that he was really excited about his next project, saying that Albom had approached him with an idea for another book, suggesting the two collaborate.
“I thought, WOW, Mitch Albom is asking me to collaborate?” Gave said. “Sure, I’ll jump on the best-seller list with you. I asked him ‘What do you have in mind?’ And he said ‘I’ve already got the title – it’s ‘The Five Russians You Meet in Heaven.’”
On a more serious note, when asked whether he had considered making an actual movie of the story, Gave said: “Funny you should ask.” He explained that he had been approached by some “Hollywood-type dramatic movie-makers” and would that very afternoon be putting the finishing touches on a screenplay he had worked on with another writer.
“I think it’s pie in the sky, a moon shot,” Gave said. “But I think it would be a good movie. It would be about the Russian Five, but it would center on Konstantinov. You’d have a rollercoaster ride with him.”
As an aside, Gave’s talk in the library’s children’s room also had an unintended yet interesting duality. The story of his flight to Finland with a goal of helping two Russian hockey players to defect, fly to freedom and a career with the Detroit Red Wings was backdropped by a wall decorated with children’s faces mounted on butterfly cutouts under the title “Reading Makes Us Take Flight.” Especially fitting, as Gave’s successful plan was accomplished through the use of a book.