April 12, 2018
Larger Than Life: Sergei Fedorov
Sergei Fedorov became a man larger than life. He was one of the flashiest and best hockey players of his day, paid millions and millions of dollars. He was known outside of the game for fast cars, nice clothes and his relationship with tennis sex symbol Anna Kournikova (and Tara Reid and Danielle Meers, for that matter).
There was a time when Sergei lived a much simpler life. The Russian was born in Pskov, just outside of what we now call St. Petersburg, but he grew up in Apatiti, a town literally north of the Arctic Circle. He learned to skate on the frozen rivers, and before he was a teenager was playing in the local adult hockey league, with his father Viktor as the center.
Word of Sergei's incredible hockey ability traveled fast, even from the Arctic. By the age of 13 his family agreed to let him move to Minsk, in what is now known as Belarus, to attend a special sports school to hone his hockey skills. It would not be long before he was relocated again, this time to Moscow to train with the Red Army and the famed Russian national team.
The national team and father Viktor pushed Sergei because they all knew he was a true hockey prodigy, somebody who very possibly would one day be considered the greatest hockey player from Russia ever. Remember, this was still in the days of communist Soviet Union where a star player like Sergei was essentially developed to be part of the superiority propaganda machine of the Kremlin. It was very important that Sergei and others become the best hockey players possible.
Sergei needed no extra incentives as wanted to be the best he could be. The only thing was Sergei had a much different vision of the future than did the Russian hockey authorities. Sergei wanted to be the best player in the National Hockey League, and he wanted the freedoms of western life.
Sergei made that vision a reality in 1990, with the help of the Detroit Red Wings who drafted Sergei 74th overall in 1989. With the Soviet team playing at the Goodwill Games in Seattle. Fedorov snuck away from his KGB watchers and into a waiting limousine who took the young Russian star to the airport. He boarded Red Wings owner Mike Illitch's private jet, and touched down in Detroit before the Russians even knew he was missing.
"It was both a scary and happy time for me," Fedorov recalled. "I just wanted an opportunity to play the game I loved. But it was tough for me to leave my country, very tough."
Fedorov loved his homeland very much, but he knew he had to leave. Unlike countrymen and fellow defector Alexander Mogilny, he purposely waited to defect until his mandatory military training was complete before bailing. That way he could not be declared a traitor to his country. In fact, though the details have always been murky, Sergei may have even have beaten the official defector label thanks to post-event negotiations.
Despite the language difficulties and a very different world he found himself in, Sergei immediately established himself as one of the best players in the National Hockey League. When all was said and done he won three Stanley Cups, 2 Selke trophies, 1 Hart Trophy and 1 Pearson Trophy and the highest scoring Russian player in NHL history.
Of course the political world changed drastically following Sergei's jump to freedom, and he was able to compete for his country again, playing in 2 Olympics (will he make it 3 in 2010?), 2 Canada Cups/World Cups, 1 World Championship and 3 World Junior Championships.
Fedorov was a near perfect hockey player, perhaps the most versatile player of the modern generation. He was so heady and understood the game so well that he could play any position, even defense, a true rarity of the hockey elite. His phenomenal skating prowess and agility complimented his intelligence so that he could excel in any situation.
He was trained in the mould of a classic Russian centerman, which is why he was so good defensively. He knew where to be so that he would be in perfect position. Sometimes he was unfairly criticized for not keeping his feet moving when playing defensively. So many 4th line defensive specialists pump their legs to keep up, whereas the powerfully footed Fedorov only needed a stride or two to make the play.
"It's not always how many times you score, it's what you do to help the team win. Stopping goals or creating opportunities is just as important as any goal you score," he once philosophized very accurately.
Fedorov only won 2 Selke trophies as best defensive forward, but he likely would have won more had he not put up such gaudy offensive numbers, too. He was a dazzling puck handler with an absolute lazer of a shot. He saw the ice brilliantly and was a top playmaker, especially springing linemates on the transition offense.
Fedorov had the ability to dominate any game. He was critized for taking nights off during the regular season, and it was fair comment. But the bigger the game, the better Fedorov was. He put together 4 consecutive Stanley Cup playoffs with at least 20 points, an incredible feat.
I often wonder how great Fedorov's legacy would have been had he remained in Detroit longer. He left in 2003, chasing the money and the stardom Anaheim promosed. But he wasted away in relative obscurity in California, then in Columbus, before he had a minor resurrection with Alexander Ovechkin's Washington Capitals late in his career.
Had he stayed in Detroit he could have won more Stanley Cups and, with Steve Yzerman battling injuries then retiring, possibly be recognized as the game's best player. I've often wondered if Fedorov has any regrets over leaving, too.
In my mind, there was no more perfect a hockey player than Sergei Fedorov on the top of his game. He could play on my team any day of the week.