Sergei Fedorov was speaking on a cell phone as he drove to his new home in Newport Beach, Calif. At night, he would play his first exhibition as an Anaheim Mighty Duck — after an entire career as a Red Wing.
I have always found Sergei, 33, to be insightful about himself — when you can get him to sit still long enough to talk. And in our long conversation, he spoke reflectively about his departure, his image and his new home.
What follows are edited excerpts of the conversation, beginning with his split from wife Anna Kournikova, which Fedorov, for the first time, admits had a large effect on his decision-making last season.
MITCH: Was last year the hardest year of your life?
SERGEI: Yeah, yeah, I would say so. I got knocked down pretty hard. It’s tough to keep your mind on things when things that have been very, very dear to you
— very personal to you — are taken away. That’s why a lot of stuff happened. It’s not the way the media wrote about it — that I turned down Mike Ilitch’s personal offer. Obviously, I didn’t wanna let anybody know what’s happening in my private life because nobody wants to know — they want to see me play hockey. But I can say, honestly, if I would not have my personal problems, I would have really considered the offer from Mike Ilitch right away, actually, without even going into negotiations. But, unfortunately, my head was not into the right place at the time. That’s the real scoop, to be honest with you.
M: So your mind wasn’t on dealing with numbers?
S: Exactly right. But my owner and general manager knew that because I told them that. I don’t know whether they believe it or not because I was playing really well. But maybe hockey was keeping me going, you know?
M: So you actually said, “I have a lot of personal things happening in my life, I don’t want to discuss contracts now”?
S: Yeah, I told Mr. Ilitch and Ken Holland that I’m going through some personal issues, and it was a pretty tough time for me. But whether they took it seriously or not — I don’t know.
M: But you’re saying if that offer had been made when your head was clear, you’d have taken it in a minute?
S: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And believe me, I’m saying this with the bottom of my heart. I mean, it would be not a problem — not a problem to be back in Red Wing uniform. But, again, I guess we’re talking about it after all of this stuff happened. You’re the first guy who ask me this. And my head is very clear right now. Ocean air. (Laughs.)
M: So if not for the personal issues, you might still be a Wing?
S: Well, we can only guess right now, but that’s what I think.
M: What can you tell people about what really did and didn’t happen between you and Anna Kournikova? Many people seem to be thinking and writing many things.
S: Three words: I don’t care. I don’t wanna bring anything from the past, especially about this other person. I had enough of that. I’m at peace. I moved on. I have nothing to do with this person anymore. I wish her all the best. And that’s done.
M: Will it be a long time before you get involved with anyone again — maybe not until you’re done with hockey?
S: Good question. I’m gonna keep my private life to myself, but thanks for checking.
M: Did any part of you feel like 13 years in Detroit was enough? It was time for a change?
S: I didn’t feel that way, because, Mitch, we had fun in Detroit, and you know why. We won three Cups and were in the hunt for another and another and another. But look at the (Wings) now — obviously they changed directions very, very thoroughly — so it’s one Russian hockey player left, Pavel Datsyuk. And no more Russians. So maybe it was the time to go.
M: You think they were deliberately getting rid of the Russians?
S: I don’t think that way, but I just said the fact is one Russian left.
M: Did you feel properly appreciated when you were here?
S: It’s a very hard question for me, because if I say no, people start wondering what the hell I was doing there for 13 years. If I say yes, it would be too much truth to it. I feel I was appreciated in Detroit, yes. But at some point, I wasn’t sure what’s really happening on the ice when, you know, when we losing the game and I’m not the player they would look to, you know, sometimes . . .
To be honest with you, I was thinking, well, everybody is getting up there in age, maybe it’s time to smoothly switch to some new leaders on the team. And I was thinking that would include myself — but I guess not.
M: Why do you say “I guess not”?
S: Well, because I’m a Mighty Duck and playing in Anaheim now.
M: Do you feel, when it came to being a team leader, that management didn’t look at you that way?
S: Exactly. Maybe it’s time for me to say that. Maybe it would be better if people know that, you know?
M: When you arrived in Detroit, you were a young kid who didn’t speak English well. You had some unusual ways. Sometimes, it’s human nature to always think of someone through his first impression. Do you feel that happened to you? That they would never think of you as a successor to say, Steve Yzerman, in terms of leadership?
S: Well, I can’t really speak for the human world . . . but maybe management maybe felt that way about me — or not — it’s very hard to say. Steve Yzerman has always been Steve Yzerman — the captain of this team for so long. And that’s a wonderful thing. That’s why we achieved so much.
M: Would you have liked to have had the role Steve Yzerman had?
S: I don’t think I can be Steve Yzerman. I’d like to have a role like that and be Sergei Fedorov.
M: But you were never gonna have that role and be Sergei Fedorov in Detroit?
S: Uh . . . I think on the ice I had some responsibilities very close to it. While Steve was injured once or twice in his career, I had to step it up.
M: How about off the ice?
S: Off the ice I don’t know if was required of me so much. But you lead by example, and I was in that same gym like everybody else — like every player on our team.
M: Do you see your role with Anaheim as being its Steve Yzerman?
S: How about I’ll be Sergei Fedorov in Anaheim? That’s what I’m working toward.
M: Do you personally want to have the best year of your career — to show everybody who doubted you?
S: I’m not here for show. I’m here to play great hockey. And, hopefully, I’ll bring to this franchise one of the ultimate goals, which is Stanley Cup.
M: You said maybe it’s time people hear you say certain things. What else?
S: Mitch, I don’t feel like I have to, you know, prove anything to anybody. I’m a good hockey player. I was being good hockey player. I know one thing — we won three Cups together — and it’s something you cannot take away from us. I just like to say only one simple thing — the media wrote about me rejecting all those deals left and right, you know? I did not reject one deal. And I never thought to do that, especially, personally, the offer from Mike Ilitch. It was just not on the table. And another deal we got so close that Red Wings did not choose to pursue and sign.
M: When you left, people said, “It’ll be hard for Sergei to leave Detroit, because he’s never played for anyone else.” But people forget, you left your home country, Russia, to come play here.
S: Yeah, it’s not like I came from one bus station to the other.
M: So did leaving Russia give you some experience in how to handle this move?
S: Well, I’ve been thinking that sometimes it pays not to be wise. I was only 20 when I left Russia. I didn’t know a lot of things in life. Being 33 now, even staying within the same country, moving didn’t bring me a lot of excitement or joy. Leaving Michigan and Red Wings fans was hard. I talk to my friends there, and they always say, “I miss you, man. Where are you?” I’m like
— don’t worry — I don’t really leave — I just have to go and do my work, and I’ll come back and hang out again and do all kinds of stuff.
M: Are you keeping a place in Michigan?
S: Yeah, of course.
M: You’re not selling your place here?
S: No, I’m not. I like Michigan. I enjoyed Michigan always. I always will.
M: Will you come back in summer?
S: Definitely. That’s the plan.
M: What was the weirdest part of joining a new team?
S: I think coming to the team that beat you last year in playoffs. (Laughs.)
M: So it was weird being in the same locker room?
S: With guys I play against just like two, three months ago. (Laughs.)
M: Have you talked to any of them about that?
S: Not really talk to them about it, but I’m learning a lot about this club. And I know why they beat us.
M: Why? Give me the biggest reason.
S: They were a very disciplined, very structured team — and they had a system that everybody knows how to work. They paid a lot of attention to details.
M: Will it be tough to get used to the lifestyle out there?
S: Well, it’s obviously a different state — and a lot more sunny days here. But I used to spend summers in California hanging out with Wayne Gretzky and some of his friends here — so I kind of knew what I’m up against.
M: Do you like it?
S: So far I enjoy it very much — yes.
M: Made any friends?
S: Yeah, I met three brothers — Joe, Eric and Anthony — and they helped me tremendously — and they’re cousins of my best friend from Detroit — and they are awesome guys. They help me, as they say, “dial into” this area.
M: Have you developed a favorite California food?
S: Yeah — Baja Fresh. (Laughs.)
M: The fast-food Mexican place?
S: Yeah, it’s healthy, very healthy, very spicy food. I never eat spicy before.
M: You might not want to eat that before a game.
S: Well, thanks for the advice. I don’t think I will.
M: Anything else you want to say to the people of Detroit?
S: Well, I always want to wish them the best. I hope they gonna cheer their team and my former team on for the Stanley Cup — and it was fun — no question — fun and a lot of work and a lot of glory, blood and tears playing in front of 20,000 people in Detroit, especially in Joe Louis Arena. It’s always gonna be the biggest memory of my life. I grew up in Detroit. More than that. I became a man there.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).