With Sergei Fedorov, the conversation always comes back to skating.
You could be talking about his dramatic defection from the Soviet Union in 1990 or his heavy, accurate shot or his friendship with the guys in Guns N' Roses. But when the subject is Fedorov, a dynamic center for the Detroit Red Wings, the talk always turns to the wonders he works with steel blades on his feet. "Best skater I've ever seen," Detroit captain Steve Yzerman states flatly.
"The strongest skater I've seen in 21 years," agrees Red Wing defenseman Mark Howe. "He's got unbelievable balance, strength and speed. The guy just doesn't get knocked down."
Not by some of the NHL's most bruising players. And certainly not by a bicycle built for two.
On an off day during Detroit's recent West Coast swing, Fedorov and teammate Nicklas Lidstrom decided to spend an afternoon rollerblading near Newport Beach, Calif. The fact that Fedorov had never 'bladed before daunted him not in the least. Things were going fine—"This is easy," he crowed—until a tandem bike took a wobbly left turn in front of him. Only then did it occur to Fedorov that he had no idea how to decelerate. A major collision seemed inevitable, but Fedorov simply hurdled the bike's rear wheel and kept skating.
Soon his attention was snagged by a roller-hockey game in progress on a nearby playground. More precisely, it was snagged by a certain right wing, a raven-haired woman in her mid-20's wearing a black and gray cat suit. When she scored on a breakaway, he cheered. But it was not until Catwoman hustled back on defense that Fedorov melted completely. "Look at that forecheck," he said. "She's right on the ball! She's a great little two-way forward!"
A woman after his own heart. Fedorov, you see, is the best two-way player in the world. A fourth-round draft choice in 1989, Fedorov arrived in Detroit nearly four years ago—having been spirited out of Portland, Ore., in the private jet of Red Wing owner Mike Hitch shortly after playing for the Soviet Union in the Goodwill Games—and has been smothering opponents ever since.
This year he has blossomed into one of the NHL's most dangerous scorers, thanks in part to Detroit coach Scotty Bowman, who gets his kicks by putting Fedorov's line out with offensive defensemen Lidstrom and Paul Coffey, and in part to a...herniated disk?
That disk, in the neck of Yzerman, was injured on Oct. 21 in a game against the Winnipeg Jets. The mishap put Yzerman out for more than two months. When the Red Wing captain went down, Bowman called Fedorov in for a little talk, saying, in essence, O.K., kid, time to carry the team. With linemates Vyacheslav Kozlov and Dino Ciccarelli, Fedorov has done just that. After dropping seven of their first 10 games this season, the Red Wings have gone 22-7-4. Stoking that bull run has been Fedorov, who had 32 goals and 43 assists through Sunday, and who has spent the season trading the NHL's overall scoring lead with Wayne Gretzky of the Los Angeles Kings.
It seemed cruel to the other NHL teams when Yzerman returned to the lineup on Dec. 27. If you're a coach with only one checking line, whose line do you check, Fedorov's or Yzerman's? So far Fedorov seems to be getting more intense defensive attention—some of it illegal.
Since he arrived in the NHL, the book on Fedorov has been: Knock the phlegm out of him and he'll disappear. Even though that rap "is now fiction," according to Red Wing assistant coach Barry Smith, the Russian has been taking his licks of late. On Dec. 21 Chris Chelios of the Chicago Blackhawks smacked Fedorov with a combination cross-check-high stick to the neck. Chelios was fined $500. On Jan. 4 Fedorov had one of his front teeth chipped by the stick of St. Louis Blue defenseman Jeff Brown. Before Detroit's game against the San Jose Sharks on Jan. 6, Red Wing general manager Bryan Murray told his team that it needed to do a better job of protecting the skill guys.
Cavalryman Bob Probert waited all of 14 seconds after the game began to commence trading punches with San Jose's Jeff Odgers, who had presumably looked at Fedorov the wrong way. Two minutes after the Probert-Odgers bout, Fedorov wristed a 35-foot laser past Shark goalie Arturs Irbe. The dam had burst. Coffey scored another goal 14 seconds later, and the Wings went on to a 10-3 win.
"My question is," says Coffey, who has been splendid in this, his 14th NHL season, "how did Sergei average only 70 points his first three seasons?"
First, he averaged 84 points in those seasons. Second, cut the guy some slack. In his rookie season Fedorov had a profound adjustment to make. His transition was eased by management's decision to make Shawn Burr his roommate on the road. Burr is considered the most loquacious Red Wing, and Fedorov learned some English from him. During training camp that first season, the Russian approached Burr with a serious request.
"I need love," Fedorov said.
"Uh, sorry, Sergei," replied Burr. "I can't help you."
Fedorov repeated the request to several of his teammates, who began to wonder about him. How thoroughly did we scout this guy? Finally Fedorov pointed to a word in a Russian-English dictionary. A relieved equipment manager issued Fedorov a new pair of gloves.
This is the first season Fedorov has been asked to be more than a defensive specialist. That's one reason for his gaudy numbers. Another is that he has become, after pleas from Bowman and Murray, a more selfish player. Says Murray, "He's learning the North American way: Get greedy, score goals, get paid."
Bowman thinks Fedorov's scoring is up because he's no longer trying to be "too fancy." He's stickhandling less this season, simply picking his spots and letting her rip.
Is this a conscious decision Fedorov has made? He can't rightly say. "Ziggy [team shrink Kent Osborne] tells us, 'When you think, you're screwed,' " he says.
Which seems to be Fedorov's rollerblading philosophy as well. As he skated south toward Balboa Beach, he worked on some creative moves—left leg extended behind him, arms spread out—forcing several 'bladers to veer off the path, into the sand.
At Balboa Beach, Fedorov and Lidstrom stopped to admire a man handling an enormous boa. It was at this time that a woman ventured out of a nearby bar. "My friend thinks you guys are cute," she told them. After some chitchat, she asked them what they did for a living.
"We're dancers in the Madonna tour," said Fedorov.
This struck her dumb. "What's wrong, don't you like Madonna?" asked Fedorov.
"I respect her as a businesswoman," said the woman. "Seriously, what do you guys do?"
"We're dancers," answered Fedorov, feigning hurt. With that the woman gave up and returned to the bar. In a way, Fedorov was telling the truth.
Have you seen the guy skate?