Business As Usual His contract controversy behind him, Sergei Fedorov is back in the good graces of his teammates and leading the red-hot Red Wings into the playoffs

April 19, 1998

Tradition calls for Detroit Red Wings rookies to buy the rest of
the team dinner at some point during the season. But in late
February, after veteran center Sergei Fedorov ended a bitter and
at times divisive contract dispute that had kept him out of
action for 59 games by signing a six-year, $38 million deal, the
team decided it was time to break with tradition. This season it
would be the rich 28-year-old Russian who would pick up the
dinner tab.

Last summer Fedorov had alienated his three Russian teammates by
skipping a historic trip to Moscow with the Stanley Cup they had
just won. A restricted free agent after the season, he hacked
off everyone else in the organization by pledging as late as
January never to play for Detroit again and then signing an
offer sheet from the Carolina Hurricanes, which earned him the
nickname Nyet Wing. The Red Wings eventually matched the offer,
which could net Fedorov $28 million in salary and bonuses this
season. Just a couple of weeks after he signed, the Detroit
players decided that Fedorov would take them all to a steak
house as a first step toward patching things up with them.

The Red Wings, it turns out, were more than happy to bury the
hatchet with Fedorov that night--right into about three dozen
porterhouse steaks. "We ate everything we could stick in our
faces," says forward Joey Kocur. Seafood platters followed the
steaks. Waiters rushed to the table with expensive ports, Godiva
chocolates and fistfuls of cigars. The bill came to more than
$10,000 before Fedorov added a tip roughly the size of a small
car loan. "We gave Sergei a bit of a hard time when he came
back," says right wing Darren McCarty. "It was all in good fun.
But he's a smart guy, and he knew the best way to shut up a
bunch of hockey players was to put food in our mouths. We pigged
out."

Since that banquet Detroit has been feasting on opponents. With
the regular season drawing to a close, no team has been hotter
than the defending Stanley Cup champions, who at week's end were
9-1-2 in their last 12 games and had the second best record
(44-20-15) in the Western Conference, two points behind the
Dallas Stars.

A few days before hosting the feast, Fedorov walked up to Red
Wings owner Mike Ilitch in the team's dressing room in the Joe
Louis Arena and said, "I will earn every penny." After a slow
start Fedorov is starting to keep that promise. Detroit's
playoff hopes lie mostly in the hands of goalie Chris Osgood,
but the team's surge is due in large part to Fedorov, who in
1993-94 was the league MVP and won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's
best defensive forward. Fedorov was the Wings' leading playoff
scorer (20 points) last season and is perhaps the most gifted
skater in the game, but he still hasn't beaten the rap that he
doesn't play hard all the time. "Anyone who questions the money
Sergei got doesn't understand one thing--there aren't two Sergei
Fedorovs in the NHL," says McCarty. "When he wants to play, he
can be the best player in the league."

After leading the Russian Olympic team to a silver medal in
Nagano, Fedorov returned to Detroit in excellent shape and, with
the addition of a weight program to his workout regimen, has
been playing more like a power forward, muscling defenders and
digging pucks out of the corners. He's so happy to be back, he
comes to the rink on his days off for conditioning work or just
to sit at his locker and tape his sticks. The contract has done
what no one thought a huge deal could possibly do: It has lit a
fire under Fedorov. Through Sunday he had 10 points in his last
eight games, including a goal and an assist in a 5-2 romp over
the New York Rangers last Saturday at home. "Sergei changes the
dynamic of this team because he is a unique talent," says
Detroit assistant coach Dave Lewis. "It's hard to put into
words. It's his speed, his versatility. He's a guy the opponent
must always be aware of on the ice, kind of like Wayne Gretzky."

Under terms of his contract, Fedorov received a $14 million
signing bonus, gets $2 million in salary and will be paid a $12
million bonus if Detroit reaches the conference finals--all for
four months' work. But over the life of the contract Fedorov
will earn an average of $6.3 million per season, which is a fair
price for a player of his caliber. (Philadelphia Flyers center
Eric Lindros, for example, makes $8 million per season.)

Fedorov knows the value of money, for it was a bribe of 500
Swiss francs to a Soviet team official that allowed him to
defect from the Red Army team in July 1990. During that period
of his life, he didn't have a car or much money, and he lived in
an army barracks. "That was sucking very, very much," Fedorov
says.

Still, the potential playoff bonus was hard for the members of
the Detroit organization and some fans to swallow. The Wings
tried unsuccessfully to get the league to throw out the offer
sheet, saying that the clause calling for the $12 million bonus
was unfair to Detroit because the powerful Red Wings had a good
chance to advance to the conference finals while the Hurricanes
would be hard-pressed to even reach the playoffs. Earlier in the
season one teammate was quoted in a Detroit newspaper as saying,
"How can you pay a guy $6 million or even $5 million if you have
to go to him before every game and ask him to play [hard]?"
(Fedorov did help dispel his reputation as a soft player in last
year's conference finals against the hated Colorado Avalanche
when he skated with broken ribs and scored the series-winning
goal.)

Upon his return to the lineup six weeks ago, the home crowd
booed Fedorov mercilessly until two things happened: Coach
Scotty Bowman called a local sports radio show from his car
phone and told the fans to lay off, and Fedorov scored both
goals in a 2-0 home win against Colorado on April 1. After
receiving a standing ovation when he was named the game's first
star, Fedorov was near tears.

"I knew the price I would pay for getting this contract," says
Fedorov. "Right now I'm just being laid-back and quiet. I will
just breathe hockey and think nothing but hockey, because
playing my heart out every day is the best way to move forward."

Fedorov also had to overcome the wrath of his Russian teammates,
incurred when he skipped the Stanley Cup tour of their homeland,
which was supposed to be a symbolic gesture toward the players
who never got to leave the former Soviet Union for the good life
in the NHL. Fedorov says he wasn't invited and didn't want to
celebrate without teammate Vladimir Konstantinov, who was in
critical condition in a Detroit-area hospital after suffering
head injuries in an automobile accident. "There are no hard
feelings," center Igor Larionov says now. "In Russia we have a
saying, 'Do not talk about the past, otherwise you will lose
your eye.'"

The Red Wings must be adhering to that philosophy. On the verge
of the playoffs, they are focused on one thing: another Stanley
Cup.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [Sergei Fedorov and others in game]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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