Wing Leader With stars Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan hurt, ultratalented but enigmatic Sergei Fedorov became The Man for Detroit

April 22, 2001

The Russian was a puzzle wrapped in an enigma enveloped in the
embrace of 19,995 throaty hockey fans. Detroit Red Wings center
Sergei Fedorov basked in the noise at Joe Louis Arena last
Saturday, ragging the puck, playing keepaway on a penalty kill
against the overmatched Los Angeles Kings--Gee, Mister, if you let
me touch the puck, I'll give you my lunch money--before he flipped
a casual backhand pass through the neutral zone to set up another
scoring chance.

If this year's Stanley Cup playoffs are the last dance for the
NHL's oldest team, they're being played at waltz time. The Red
Wings had a 2-1 series lead, a mild surprise only because Detroit
was so thoroughly battered that the team picture should have been
taken with an X-ray machine. In the first period of Game 1,
center Steve Yzerman aggravated a left ankle sprain he'd suffered
two weeks earlier and wing Brendan Shanahan broke his left foot
blocking a shot from the point. Even Anna Kournikova, Fedorov's
fiancee, on hand to watch the playoff opener, had a cast on her
left foot to protect a stress fracture of her ankle, although it
was hidden beneath a to-die-for black leather pantsuit with ANNA
in raised letters on the jacket. ("Did I see what Anna was
wearing?" one of the Kings asked rhetorically last Friday. "You
mean that spectacular black leather suit? Nope, missed it.") With
101 career playoff goals on the sideline in the steely Yzerman
(who might return this week) and the stalwart Shanahan (out
indefinitely), Detroit needed someone to keep these broken Wings
flying.

The job fell to the brilliant, confounding, inconsistent,
indispensible Fedorov. He blew a laser from the right circle past
L.A. goalie Felix Potvin during a power play a mere 136 seconds
into last Saturday's Game 2 in Detroit--"Not too many guys have
that shot in their bag," Red Wings winger Darren McCarty said
afterward--and made a cross-ice feed for another man-advantage
goal seven minutes later. During the match Fedorov schooled
center Jozef Stumpel on face-offs, punished defenseman Jere
Karalahti with a check and even slid to block a shot, which,
given the pitiable health of Detroit's other marquee forwards,
was noble and certifiably insane. "I thought I was smarter than
those two guys," Fedorov said, a smile dancing at the corners of
his mouth. Fedorov turned the Kings into his personal chew toy in
a 4-0 win, but in Game 3 in Los Angeles on Sunday night, the
Kings finally shut him down in a 2-1 victory. Through three
games, Fedorov had either scored or assisted on five of Detroit's
10 goals.

Filling the void created by the absence of Yzerman and Shanahan
was a challenge that appealed to Fedorov's inner hero. When the
Red Wings' coaches told him of Shanahan's injury on Thursday,
Fedorov quizzed them about how long they planned to practice that
afternoon, saying he wanted to have a stiff workout in the weight
room to be strong for Games 2 and 3, which would be played on
back-to-back days in cities three time zones apart. This was The
Man emerging in Fedorov, a persona he often suppresses in
deference to the Red Wings' close-knit team structure, one that
brooks no conscience-free, Pavel Bure-style floating from anyone.

Whether he subconsciously defers to Yzerman, Detroit's storied
captain for the last 15 years, or whether Yzerman's presence
simply strips him of minutes and opportunities, Fedorov seems at
his best during times that Yzerman is out of the lineup. "When
Steve's on the ice, you're thinking that he can make something
happen," Fedorov says. "When he's not, I have to remind myself to
make something happen. Obviously it's a different mental
approach."

In the 25 games Yzerman missed early in the season because of
torn cartilage in his right knee, Fedorov had 13 goals, 17
assists and a +12 rating as he ached for the puck. In 48 games
after Yzerman's return, Fedorov had 18 goals, 19 assists and a -1
rating. Fedorov looked like the best player in hockey for the
first 10 weeks of the season, bringing up a question that arose
after he scored 56 goals in 1993-94 (a season in which Yzerman
missed 26 games because of a herniated disk) and was voted MVP
and top defensive forward: Why isn't Fedorov the best player not
for 10 weeks but for 10 years? Says Red Wings coach Scotty
Bowman, "Sometimes I don't know if he realizes how good he is."

The glory--and the exposed underbelly--of Fedorov is that of a
hockey artist. Did talk-show hosts scream at Picasso to churn out
Guernica 82 times a year and then give us 20-plus Les Demoiselles
d'Avignon in the postseason? Legendary Montreal Canadiens coach
Toe Blake often told Bowman that the elegant Jean Beliveau, the
Renoir of his era, simply couldn't play with a heavy cold. "There
are players who have high expectations who need to feel they're
going on all eight cylinders," Bowman says. "Whereas other
players, without high expectations, will just get by in those
situations."

Fedorov seemed pleased and mildly surprised when Bowman's
assessment was relayed to him. The artist, you see, is often
misunderstood by critics. "To deliver some nice things on the
ice, I have to be feeling really, really good," Fedorov says. "If
I feel physically down, sometimes my stick doesn't work. Or my
skates." Indeed, after his nose was broken in a Feb. 23 collision
with St. Louis Blues defenseman Bryce Salvador, Fedorov scored
only one goal the rest of the regular season. Bowman lauded
Fedorov's defense during the slump, which, while accurate, was
like saying your blind date had a terrific personality.

The playoffs, however, have almost always brought out the best in
Fedorov, who had 139 points in 132 postseason career games
through Sunday and had been the Red Wings' playoff scoring leader
or coleader in seven of the past 10 years. In Detroit's 5-3
victory in Game 1, he created or scored three of the first four
goals by slipping through a slovenly Kings defense. He set up
wing Tomas Holmstrom, converted a Shanahan pass from the slot and
finally rifled another shot off Potvin that Shanahan tucked into
the net. With Yzerman out, Bowman double-shifted the 31-year-old
Fedorov in the first three games.

"Sergei was playing a ton when Steve was out early in the season,
and he was thriving, even by Sergei's high standards," Shanahan
says. "He's probably the most talented player I've ever played
with if you break down his gifts. It's too easy to criticize him
for being fragile. This is a man of real independence who has had
a bull's-eye on his back his whole career. He had the mental
toughness to defect from his country at age 20, to deal with the
pressure of being Sergei Fedorov in Detroit, the scrutiny of
being Kournikova's friend. People say he's fragile mentally.
Well, you try to keep your composure on the road when some moron
in the first row has some sign insulting her."

Even though he's engaged to one of the most famous women in the
world--"We like it when she's here," Bowman says. "Sergei always
plays well when she's around"--that can't be all roses for
Fedorov. At an exhibition game on the road last September, one
haute-couture fan showed up in a replica of Fedorov's number 91
Red Wings sweater with KOURNIKOVA on the back. The slap was
unmistakable.

"He's not showcasing her. They're not a couple around town," Red
Wings associate coach Barry Smith says of Sergei and Anna. "He's
very private with her, but he still gets kicked around for it."
Fedorov offers no comment on his personal life, a stance as
chivalrous as laying a cloak for Kournikova's injured foot to
tread on.

Against the Kings, Fedorov's play didn't speak for him, it
bellowed. This is his time, his tournament and, most important,
his canvas, one he paints with a vibrant palette even if the
Wings are a portrait in X-ray black and white.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO STICKING AROUND Fedorov, who's top-notch on defense, tried to keep Adam Deadmarsh at arm's length from goalie Chris Osgood in Detroit's 5-3 victory in Game 1. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO KEEPAWAY Fedorov stymied Jaroslav Modry and the other Kings with masterly puck work.

"Sometimes," Detroit's Bowman says of Fedorov, "I don't know if
he realizes how good he is."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)