No hardware this season. Sergei Fedorov does not need space on the shelf. No awards will be coming. No trophies will be delivered. Last year he won just about everything known to man — the Hart Trophy for most valuable player, the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward, the Lester B. Pearson Trophy for best player in the league as voted by his peers. He was decorated almost daily. You needed a truck to deliver all the prizes.
Then again, he was done playing hockey by the first of May.
Which, not coincidentally, is today’s date. Remember one year ago today? The whole town had an ulcer. The Red Wings had just been knocked out of the playoffs by the San Jose Sharks, a franchise that still had its baby teeth. So much promise down the drain.
And Fedorov’s remarkable season? All for naught. The awards he took home didn’t make fans feel better, especially because Sergei’s playoff performance
— one goal in seven games — was rather dazed, thanks to a concussion suffered a few weeks earlier.
So now we have the 1995 campaign. The regular season is all but over. And on paper, Fedorov has dropped in goals, in assists, in plus-minus. He is nowhere near the league leaders in offensive categories. He will not be making acceptance speeches this summer.
It is either a post-greatness slump, or the ultimate team sacrifice.
Sergei says the latter.
“I hope people saw me last year and know what I can do,” he said after the Wings’ game Sunday afternoon. “But they must also know the hockey we played last year is not the hockey we play this year.
“I am not playing with the same players, and I am not asked to do the same things. Sometimes I think about last year, to be honest, because I would like to defend those awards. But I have to say to myself, ‘Just do the things you are told.’ “
What he has been told is to concentrate on the complete game, emphasis on defensive hockey, stay within the system, and concern yourself only with victory. It was a gamble by coach Scotty Bowman — after all, when you have a rocket in your arsenal, it’s hard to make it fly with all the other planes.
But it has worked.
So far. Wings can’t win it without Sergei
The Wings are way ahead of the pack, so much so that Sunday’s regular-season home finale was meaningless. They could have dressed the Zamboni driver. The Wings didn’t need a win or even a tie, they already have the NHL’s best record and home ice in the playoffs.
So although Sunday’s fans got nowhere near their money’s worth in a 4-0 loss to Chicago, you have to congratulate Bowman and the team for following a plan and staying with it.
But having patted them on the back, I feel compelled to add this: In all the time I have covered sports, I have never seen a team win a championship without its star players playing like stars. It is the reason Joe Montana has four championship rings; it is the reason Michael Jordan has three.
It is the reason that, starting with the next game played at Joe Louis Arena, Sergei Fedorov must up the ante.
“Oh, yes, I expect him to do more,” Bowman said bluntly. “We can’t win if he doesn’t.”
This has been a tricky season. Once the lockout shrank it to 48 games, all the usual stuff went out the window. You flew by the seat of your pants. Bowman, in my opinion, earned coach of the year honors for devising a strategy of “team-team-team” and getting players to win the war.
But only the playoffs will show whether Fedorov was a good soldier, or a casualty.
“He’s done a lot of things that don’t show up in statistics,” teammate Shawn Burr said. “He’s killing penalties real well; he’s getting back to cover. We’re different now; we don’t look to rely on one guy.
“But I’ll tell you what. . . .”
He rolled his eyes. “If Sergei ever gets back to the way he was playing last year? We’ll be scary.” More playing time in playoffs
Fedorov still flashes moves that suggest brilliance. Even in Sunday’s meaningless affair, he pulled a nifty step out of the bag, grabbing the puck, turning his defender inside out, moving backward, then making a blind dish to a teammate. It is hard to think, at age 25, that he has lost anything.
Better to think he’s saving it.
“I plan to increase his minutes in the playoffs,” Bowman said. “He’s been getting maybe 20 a game versus maybe 25 last year. I’m looking at it as a help, like he should be more ready.”
“I am ready,” Fedorov said when told this. “I am ready!”
Give Fedorov credit for not griping at his reduced role. A lot of athletes, once they win a scoring title or an MVP award, feel compelled to live up to their hype.
Fedorov has done what he has been told.
“I still can pick it up. I have much energy now. More than last year.
“I remember winning the championship in Russia in the World Cup. I know what it took. It took 20 guys all playing together, concentrating on the system.”
He smiled. “Also, a lot of skill.”
The skill he has. He will have to kick it in if the system is going to produce a champion.
No hardware this year. Near the end of Sunday’s game, Fedorov got in a squiggle with Denis Savard. As he finally broke free, Sergei’s stick flipped out of his hands and landed in the stands. Three fans immediately pounced. As they fought for possession, he skated away.
Let someone else collect prizes this season. The only one worth having is the Stanley Cup, eight weeks away. It’s time to flame on.