Anne Stanton: Author shares story behind 'Russian Five'

Record-Eagle/Jan-Michael StumpRecord-Eagle reporter Anne Stanton.

Keith Gave considers himself one of the luckiest guys in the world.

Like his dad, he could have worked right out of high school at a parts shops in Macomb County “eight hours a day, taking my overtime. My parents would have been just as proud of me.”

But instead, he spent a good part of his career reporting for the Detroit Free Press during the glory decades of the Detroit Red Wings. And it was Gave who got the puck rolling toward building its championship empire.

The story begins with Gave dropping out of college to earn enough money to finish up college, only to get drafted. Faced with the prospect of going to Vietnam, he decided to enroll in the Army’s intensive Russian language school in Monterey, California.

“We studied six hours a day, five days a week for a year. Then I went to Texas to a spy school where we learned all kinds of ways to use the language to essentially spy on the Russians. From there I went to West Berlin while the wall was there, and I spent three years in a National Security Agency facility that looked like something out of a James Bond novel with satellites, antennas, and wires. My job was to work in a darkened room with exotic electronic equipment and to keep track of the bad guys on the other side of the wall.”

After his spy stint, he went to Michigan State University, took classes, and began writing sports stories for the Lansing State Journal.

“I hung out there with experienced editors and newsmen who took me under their wing and taught me the craft. … Eight months after I walked in to report as a part-timer, I was hired.”

Fast forward several years and Gave was working for the Detroit Free Press and assigned a dream beat — covering Detroit Red Wings hockey.

This was back in the 1980s, when the Red Wings was a losing team and had been for decades. General Manager Jimmy Devellano had been hired to “rebuild” the team, a word that had turned into a bad joke among its disappointed fans.

The Red Wings decided to go big and drafted two Russian hockey players — Sergei Federov and Vladimir Konstantinov, arguably two of the most talented players in the world. But the challenge was connecting with the young men behind the Iron Curtain.

Jim Lites, then son-in-law of the Red Wings owners, turned to Gave to help. Over lunch, he offered “serious money” to Gave to fly to a game in Finland, use his reporter job as cover, and covertly slip the two players letters inviting them to play for the Red Wings. Oh, and he’d have to write the letters (in Russian), too.

Gave said no. It was a huge ethical breach to assist the very team he was assigned to report on. But over the next few days, Gave reconsidered the offer. He had read other reporters’ accounts of wittingly or unwittingly passing information to operatives on both sides of the Cold War.

“I thought there might be a way to do this. I called Jim Lites and told him, ‘I’m not going to take a dime. I’ll pay my own expenses and pass along the messages. I’ll do my best. On one condition. I want to be your first phone call when these guys start coming over. I want to be the first to interview them, first dibs on all things Russian. Forever.’ And he said, ‘Deal.’”

Ten days letter, Gave was on his way to Helsinki, Finland.

Gave provides the palm-sweating details of his covert trip in his book, "The Russian Five." And it’s just the beginning of an amazing story of fame, triumph and tragedy.

He'll share more in a National Writers Series event tonight at 7 p.m. at the City Opera House. Tickets start at $5 for students and are available at the door.

Anne Stanton is executive editor of the National Writers Series, which brings world-renowned authors to the City Opera House stage and supports youth literacy programs. See www.nationalwritersseries.org for more information.

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