LOS ANGELES — Sergei Fedorov, on the outside. He is 10 years old, in the small Russian city of Apatita. A team of adults, factory workers mostly, plays nights in an outdoor rink. They are hoping to do well in a state tournament. They are grown men. Fedorov is a boy. Still, he practices with them, a skinny kid in an oversized uniform. He keeps up. Sometimes he goes faster.
He says little. What would a schoolkid say to adults? They watch him fly. They shake their heads. They sense something about him, something that stings even as it impresses. They know this smokestack town might hold them, but it will not hold him. He is going someplace they will never go.
Flash forward 10 years. He is walking quickly through a Portland, Ore., hotel lobby, dressed in a suit, accompanied by a Red Wings intermediary. Unbeknownst to anyone else, Fedorov is defecting at this very moment. He is headed for a waiting car, leaving his country behind.
Suddenly, an elevator door opens, and a Russian trainer spots Fedorov. Is he caught? Does he panic? He smiles and speaks Russian to the trainer: “I am leaving for the NHL. If they tell you I have been kidnapped, or something bad happened to me, it’s not true.”
And he walks away.
Sergei Fedorov, on the fringe.
Flash forward one more decade. Monday night at the sparkling new Staples Center in Los Angeles, first round of the playoffs, the Red Wings on a power play, the five best offensive players on the best offensive team in hockey. All-Star Steve Yzerman moves the puck to All-Star Nick Lidstrom, who eyes All-Star Brendan Shanahan, then passes down to former All-Star Igor Larionov, who slides the puck inside to a certain Russian superstar, wiggling free.
Whack! He slaps it in. The others swarm him.
Sergei Fedorov, in the middle.
He is 30 now. He has been an NHL story for 10 years. But in many ways, Fedorov remains the most puzzling star in hockey.
“Some people — some journalists, I think — are a little bit afraid of me,” he says. “They don’t know how to take what I say. They say, ‘Where is this guy? Where is his heart, his soul, his mind?’ “
All good questions. For rarely has there been, this side of Barry Sanders, a sports star who has stayed so long in one town yet eludes description like a bee eluding a swat. Fedorov, depending on whom you listen to, is either the most gifted player in the NHL or the most self-absorbed; the most misunderstood man on his team, or the least interested; a rocket in the playoffs, or a floater in the regular season; the most sensitive Russian, or the most aloof.
He is intelligent; he is gossip fodder; he cuts a movie star figure; yet he is often his own worst enemy. When he thinks he’s being sweet, others think he’s showing off. When he thinks he’s being erudite, others think he’s being evasive. He barely said a word about dating tennis star Anna Kournikova — journalists did all the talking, giggling and whispering — yet he took the brunt of the spotlight and the criticism.
Where is his heart, his soul, his mind?
Much of it is still inside the bony frame of that 10-year-old boy, who always thought his skating was all he was supposed to bring to the rink.
Just answering questions
We sit at a table in a lounge. As he talks, he pulls his palms through his stringy blond hair, over and over, yet it keeps falling perfectly into place, outlining his sharp cheekbones. He appears to be as unmussable as he is unflappable.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad night,” Fedorov says.
“This season?” I say.
“No. Ever in my 10 years in the NHL.”
This is exactly the kind of sentence that gets Fedorov into trouble. Someone will read that and think, “Cocky!” What he’s trying to say is that he always comes with the same attitude, play your hardest, skate your best. That’s why he’s never had a bad night.
But words do not reflect him. That is his first problem. Fedorov has embraced the vocabulary of English but not its subtlety. He tries to be playful; it comes across as snobbish. He tries to be honest; it comes across as blunt. When he has nothing to say, he says nothing — which is taken as a snub.
“Do you think people have the wrong idea about you?” I ask him.
“Well, I think people need to realize I am my own self,” he says. “I don’t speak to the media to try to kiss somebody’s butt. I just try to answer the questions.
“Remember, I come from a different culture. A different hockey world, you can say. We learned on the ice, hours and hours, never go home, never see anybody, no personal life at all, no beers in a bar after the game. Nothing. Just go straight back to camp.
“So for me, every time I went on the ice, that was everything. That is where I can fly and nobody can bother me.
“I didn’t understand when I first came here that people wanted to look deeper than that. Maybe I didn’t say the right things. And I was criticized, because it is easier to criticize someone who is not from your country.
“For the most part, it never bothered me. But a few years back (during his contract holdout) it got really, really bad for me, all the criticism. And I am trying to figure where it comes from. I thought I had worked my butt off in Detroit, and all of a sudden all I hear is this comment — ‘Fedorov is an enigma.’ “
He scrunches his face. It sounds funny coming from him. Enigma. How fitting.
The guy who truly is one can’t stand the word.
He’s no Yzerman
Ask yourself this question: Would Sergei Fedorov have his image if he didn’t play on the same team as Steve Yzerman?
Yzerman sets the tone for the Red Wings. He also sets the bar. Detroit fans love Yzerman, and they prefer their stars to emulate his aw-shucks, head-down, shun-the-spotlight persona.
Comparing Fedorov to Yzerman will always leave the Russian lacking, because his style is more flamboyant, and his teammates’ acceptance far less buoyant.
But is that Fedorov’s fault? Does that make him a bad seed? Doesn’t everyone seem a little selfish compared to Yzerman? Doesn’t everyone seem to talk too much, to demand too much money, to be less civic-minded, to work too little on defense — compared to Yzerman?
The truth is, Yzerman earns a good deal annually more than Fedorov. Yzerman is, in many ways, less forthcoming than Fedorov. When Yzerman spends time with a sick child — which he does from the heart — it is still splashed across the newspapers and TV stations until everyone feels good about it. Meanwhile, when Fedorov donated his entire 1998-99 salary of $2 million to benefit children, it was seen as calculating.
One other comparison: Yzerman’s hard-working transformation to a defensive-minded forward is laudable, but no less so than the transition of Fedorov. Whereas Yzerman made the turn at least partly as a nod to age and longevity, Fedorov turned defensive while his speed and fluidity were at their peak. Yzerman was Batman, getting older and smarter. Fedorov was The Flash, fastest man in the world, deliberately hitting the brakes.
“People ask me why I don’t have more 50-goal scoring seasons like I did once,” Fedorov says of his 1994 MVP trophy season. “But this is not the role that everybody wants me to play. This team has strategies — especially with Scotty Bowman. I used to think it was bad to slow down, because it’s more fun to score points. But now I believe that it was worth it.”
Just the same, Fedorov remains the Wings’ best offensive weapon come the playoffs. Say what you will about his regular-season lapses. He has at least 20 points in four of the past five postseasons, more than Yzerman, Lid strom, Shanahan or any other Wing. Last season, the Wings won 80 percent of the games in which Fedorov scored, and they lost 50 percent of the ones in which he didn’t.
Already in this first round against the Kings, Fedorov has two key goals in three games — the empty-net nail in the coffin in Game 1 and the power-play opener in Game 3. He is skating with pop, signature speed and agility, and is playing defense.
Yet, when it comes to team players, Fedorov stands, in many people’s minds, on the outside, while Yzerman owns the core. Fedorov is the first to say Yzerman is “a franchise player, and a franchise person.” He also knows Yzerman “has a great image. I don’t know what kind of image I have. I hope a positive one. But I have made mistakes. I didn’t think about how people look at me off the ice.
“Now I realize you have to give something back to the community, too. That’s why I started a charity foundation — not because it looks good, but because it’s become a part of my life. I think like this now. I took my time, made mistakes, I learned, I got an explanation.”
“And here I am.”
Let’s get that part over with. Rarely has a hockey player inspired as many flashbulbs, late-night jokes and press-box gossips as Fedorov did when he dated Anna Kournikova. His photo showed up in entertainment magazines, British tabloids, supermarket rags. He was in his late 20s. She was barely of legal age. What they did and didn’t do is nobody’s business, of course, but that didn’t matter. People assumed.
And when Fedorov reportedly split with Kournikova — Did she dump him? Was she stolen away? Why do we care? — fans actually looked for a drop in his play. Heartbreak was supposed to affect his skating.
Never mind that all the other married or dating players in the NHL don’t get asked if a fight or a breakup is behind every missed shot.
“What I think happened with me and Anna is this,” Fedorov says, leaning forward. “I am a hockey player. I am known in North America and maybe in Russia. Anna plays all over the world. She is popular in North America, South America, Australia, maybe Africa, all over Europe. And obviously, she is a good-looking lady, and so many people make assumptions about her.
“When I was with her, I was living in a soup bowl. I tried to just do my job, concentrate on my hockey and support her career like she supports my career. In the beginning, I didn’t hear any of the comments or jokes, thank God. But then the media took a big shot at her. Instead of seeing her tennis, they saw everything else.
“People start talking. It snowballs. I was dating someone who was more famous than me, more famous than probably anyone in our locker room.”
Fedorov heard the stories about their breakup, how he supposedly sent a plane’s worth of roses to Kournikova, how he desperately wanted her back when she reportedly became engaged to Pavel Bure.
“Believe me, nobody really knows what went on,” he says. “But the rumors…. after a while it was just sad, you know? Like, why? Who cares about that in the hockey world?”
I ask Fedorov if the experience will keep him from dating other famous women. The easy answer would be yes. Laugh. Say, boy, I’ll never do that again.
He does not take the easy answer.
“I can’t say that. Wherever my life will take me, I will go and be myself and do my best.
“Dating Anna was a learning experience, that is for sure. Sometimes not very fun, but that is what it is.”
Did you know Fedorov plans to return to Russia when his career is over? Although he took heat a few years ago when he declined to make a homecoming with his Russian teammates, Fedorov retains strong feelings for his motherland. He sees himself working there at least part of the year in his post-hockey life.
Did you know that he admits to being slower than he was as a kid — by just a step? And yet, somewhat surprisingly, speed, he says, was never what he loved most.
“I like seeing a play before it happens and then making that play, knowing where everyone else is on the ice,” he says.
“You know, how many guys can skate fast? Many guys, yes? But to have a sense of the game, a sense, that’s hockey.”
He smiles. At this moment, behind this table, in this lounge, he seems to be in no hurry. He is a rich American sports star. He is a bilingual foreigner. He is one of the most gifted skaters in the league. He is constantly having to convince others of his worth.
He is 30, 20 and 10. Part of Fedorov is still out there in Apatita, skating with the big boys, keeping his mouth shut. Part of him is in transition, the young man in the hotel lobby, boldly saying good-bye to Russia. And part of him is in the middle of the most talented power play in the NHL.
“Are you happy with how your life turned out?” I ask him.
“Oh, definitely,” he says. “I am happy that I come to the locker room. I am happy that I go out there and play hard. I am happy that I get paid for doing the hobby that I love.
“I think it will all work out. I mean, I look at who I was when I was 10 years old, and now where I am here. I mean …” He throws his hands up with a wide-eyed look of elation. “How many stories can you get like my life!”
Not many. How many guys can live on the outside, the fringe and the middle, all at the same time?
His game: “I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad night.”
Fame: “Some people …they don’t know how to take what I say. They say,
‘Where is this guy? Where is his heart, his soul, his mind?’ “
Ms. Kournikova: “Dating Anna was a learning experience, that is for sure. Sometimes not very fun, but that is what it is.”
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).