Back in 1980, Vladislav Tretiak and Slava Fetisov represented everything we in the United States feared and hated.
The Soviet Union — those commie bastards — had just invaded Afghanistan and certainly would annihilate us if we didn’t possess the power to strike right back, assuring mutual destruction.
Sending Tretiak to an early shower in Lake Placid, N.Y., then completing the "Miracle on Ice" was so much more than hockey. It felt like a cleansing of evil at the time.
Today, just days away from another Olympic hockey tournament, I find myself rooting for Team Russia. It touched me to see Fetisov help carry the Olympic flag into the stadium during the opening ceremony. Tretiak’s lighting of the Olympic flame also ignited warm fuzzies in me.
No, I’m not ready to renounce my U.S. citizenship and move to Saint Petersburg. It’s just that most of us here in Detroit have a soft spot for Russia, which gave us some of the best hockey we’ve ever seen and a newfound respect for its people.
Back in the late 1990s, the "Russian Five" — Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov — helped turn four-plus decades of frustration for the Red Wings into one of the biggest celebrations Detroit has ever known.
As a five-man unit, they controlled the puck like it was a game of keep-away. It was more like watching a symphony on ice than a hockey game. And in June 1997, with the Russian Five leading the way, the Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup since 1955.
The feat set off a raucous, yet mostly peaceful celebration throughout the streets of metro Detroit that lasted through the night and culminated a few days later with a huge parade down Woodward Avenue that attracted more than a million people. If you were an out-of-town visitor at the time, you would have thought Red Wings car flags were a new kind of license plate because nearly every vehicle had one.
It was a privilege to cover that team as a young reporter for CBS Sports, and not just because of the superb brand of hockey it played. The Russians were true gentlemen, great ambassadors for the game and their country. Their dry sense of humor was fun to be around, too.
When questioned about his lack of scoring during a game, Fedorov — a terrific two-way forward who twice won the Selke Trophy — would often ask, "How many points did Fedorov’s man get?" usually referring to himself in the third person.
Larionov, nicknamed "The Professor," was once congratulated for being the chess champion in the Red Wings’ locker-room. He just smirked and deadpanned, "Look at the competition."
Fetisov, who along with Tretiak played for the Soviet Olympic team in 1980, even joked about one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
"I, too, would like to think I contributed to the growth of hockey in the United States in 1980," Fetisov said years later.
Fetisov was also involved in the limousine accident that ended Konstantinov’s playing career way too early, just a week after the Red Wings captured the Cup in 1997. Fetisov suffered minor injuries, while Konstantinov, a bruising defenseman in his prime, had serious head injuries and paralysis.
In Detroit, the accident received media coverage and an outpouring of grief usually reserved for heads of state. Yes, we loved our Russians.
And still do, including current Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk, who’s scheduled to captain Team Russia in Sochi, if a lower-body injury doesn’t keep him out of the Games.
Datsyuk, like the Russian Five before him, is beloved here for his uncanny play and his sense of humor.
When Tigers ace Justin Verlander signed a huge contract last spring, Datsyuk sent out the following tweet: "@Justin Verlander congrats on the new contract! Mr. Ilitch spent all his money. Nothing left for me ;-)"
Fortunately for Detroit, Mike Ilitch — who owns the Tigers and Wings — was able pay Datsyuk, too, and we get to continue our love affair with him through the 2016-17 season.