HOW AMERICAN HELPED RUSSIAN IN SPACE RACE

HIS FIRST NAME is Doug and his last name is Brown and I don’t care if you give him a beret, a goatee, a book of Dostoyevsky and a flask of vodka, he still wouldn’t look Russian. He is as American as they come, with a New England accent, a college transcript, and a wife whose father owns the New York Giants.

And yet Doug Brown gets on the ice with Sergei Fedorov and it’s das vadanya, baby, like they’ve been skating together in the Red Army, the Russian Olympic team and the Moscow Ice Capades. Both of them get faster. Both get more productive. They weave around in tight little circles and suddenly there seems to be more empty ice than there was a minute ago.

“I guess it’s chemistry,” says Brown.

“I feel freer when he is on the ice,” says Fedorov.

“It’s like a quarterback with his favorite receiver,” Brown says.

“He looks for me, I look for him,” Fedorov says.

They were reunited Monday night, in Game 3 of the Colorado-Detroit series, and the jump they had was so noticeable you had to wonder why Brown had been benched the previous six games. Never mind that other guys can share a line with Fedorov. So what? That’s like telling Garfunkel that Simon knows another guy who can sing harmony, too.

“He knows my game and tries to feed me the puck,” says Fedorov.

“It’s a matter of anticipating his next move,” says Brown.

Brown and Fedorov have sync. They have karma.

Let me picture this again. A fur hat. Some winter boots. A hammer and sickle on his briefcase . . .

Sorry. Brown would still look like a college kid trying out for “Dr. Zhivago.”

The blond and the redhead

The truth is, Brown, 35, and Fedorov, 30 — who have shared a line for much of the last five years — could not, off the ice, be less alike. And I’m not just talking ethnicity, vocabulary or national anthem.

Fedorov is tall and blond, a high-spirited, always-in-the-spotlight bachelor.

Brown is a compact, redheaded family man, who gets about as much spotlight as a groundhog.

The Wings wooed Fedorov out of Russia.

The Wings picked Brown off the waiver wire.

The Wings lost Fedorov once, in a contract holdout, and lured him back with a
$38 million deal.

The Wings lost Brown once, too. They left him unprotected in the expansion draft.

And yet, it is Brown, the lesser-paid and lesser-known, who often proves indispensable. Because by being willing to do selfless things, he helps makes Fedorov the superstar he can be.

“What’s your role on Sergei’s line?” I ask him.

“My role,” he says, “is to create space.”

Think about that. Create space. What if you had someone doing that for you all day? Instead of crowding into an elevator, you zoomed unencumbered, right to your floor. Instead of sitting in traffic, you cruised back and forth without ever hitting the brakes.

Wouldn’t you be more productive?

That’s kind of how it works with these two. Brown is masterful at drawing the defense away from Fedorov, either by holding the puck until it comes his way, then dumping it off to Sergei, or by streaking ahead without the puck, to a spot where the defense has to come after him — or risk his being wide open. When they bite, Fedorov can turn on the jets.

“With his electrifying skill and speed, all I have to do is get him the puck,” Brown says. “Sergei is Mr, Excitement.”

And Brown is Mr. Patience.

Call him comrade Brownov

Almost from the time he got here, Brown has bounced in and out of favor with Scotty Bowman. At times, Brown has seemed integral to the team’s success. And at other times — like the first six games of these playoffs — he has been stranded on the bench.

He was expendable enough to be left unprotected in that expansion draft, yet critical enough that the Wings traded back for him one month later. He was once so well-integrated to the Russian Five style of hockey, they gave him a new nickname “Brownov.”

Yet after playing 80 regular-season games the last two seasons, he played in only 51 this season.

Now — for the moment? — he is back with Fedorov. And with their third linemate, Tomas Holmstrom, a master pest around the net, they make a good, fast combination.

“It helps that we are good friends off the ice,” says Fedorov. “What I like most about Doug is that he is selective with his words. He means everything he says. He chooses the right words for every sentence.”

Which of course — you guessed it — is frequently untrue for Fedorov.

But, as they say, opposites attract. Flashy running backs find quiet, grunting blockers. Hot-tempered pitchers click with low-key catchers. So why not Russia’s answer to The Flash, paired with a cerebral American kid out of Boston College?

“Have you ever been to Russia?” I ask Brown.

“Once, back in 1986,” he says.

“Ever think of defecting?”

He laughs. You can feed him all the borscht you want. The only thing Russian about Doug Brown is his karma with a certain No. 91.

For the moment, that’s worth its weight in rubles.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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