You can’t tell anymore by the way he looks. With that stringy blond hair that he flicks out of his eyes, he could be any Generation X-er with high cheekbones and pouting lips.
Nor can you tell by the way he talks. Most of the time, it’s awfully American — although, now and then, he sews together a foreign malaprop, like when he describes the location of his northern Russian home: “It is way upstairs,” he says.
But forget such peripheral things. Here is how you know Sergei Fedorov is still getting used to this country: Have him tell you a “first time” story. Like the first time he got a speeding ticket. There he was, coming to work on a winter night, driving 60 m.p.h. in a 40-m.p.h. zone, and a cop pulls him over. The lights are flashing. The cop steps out, starts coming his way.
“Were you scared?” Fedorov is asked.
“No,” he says. “I didn’t know this would be bad for my license. It was dark, the flashing lights, it was like, wow, a detective thing! Like in the movies! Iwas excited!”
About a speeding ticket?
Well. New experience, you understand. He felt the same way the first time he entered an American record store. Or the first time someone told him he could get money from a machine. A machine? He stuck his card in, pushed the buttons, watched the money come out.
“I went, ‘Wow!’ In Russia, with money like it is today, maybe 1,700 rubles for one dollar, sometimes you have to carry around a bag of money just to buy a meal. Back there, we did not have credit cards. And here I am, getting money from a machine. . . .
“It’s so different. I have to tell myself not to get excited about each thing, because I’d spend all day” — he spins his head quickly, left, right, left — “going, ‘Wow . . . Wow . . . Wow!’ “
Which, coincidentally, is sort of how the hockey world is reacting to Sergei Fedorov these days. Spinning head. Wow. Wow. Wow. It is astounding, when you think about it, to go from one country to another, one culture to another, yet keep your hockey career in a straight and glorious line, right to the top. Never mind that Fedorov is all of 24 years old.
“I’m not sure,” he says, when asked about this rise, “that people can imagine what has happened to my life since coming to this country. It has been so different. Every day there is something new to learn.”
And that’s just speeding tickets and cash machines. How about the fact that here, in the starting gate of the NHL playoffs, Sergei Fedorov might be the best player in the league?
Where do they teach that in the immigration manual? He had a great teacher
Nowhere, of course. Fedorov teaches himself. Which is fine. He has been doing so much of his life, from his childhood days skating on frozen soccer fields near his birthplace of Pskov, outside Leningrad, to the rinks of a distant northern town of Apatiti, above the Arctic Circle, where Fedorov fell in love with the cold. This is how remote his family was: If they had wanted to attend the Lillehammer Olympics, they would have headed south.
“We had big winters there,” Fedorov recalls, “big” presumably meaning long and severe and not a place where you’d find George Hamilton. But it was here that a young Sergei played wing on an adult hockey team — and his father, Viktor, played center. It was here that Fedorov learned the discipline of the game, passing to men twice his age and hoping they would pass back. It was here that he fell in love with the glistening of hockey ice, the smooth surface left by a small truck with a large basket of water, pipes, tubes, and a blanket trailing behind like a tail.
“Russian Zamboni,” he says.
In the morning, Fedorov would skate, and in the evening he would skate again. Later, when chosen for a special sports school outside of Minsk — nearly 1,000 miles from his parents — he would practice by himself for hours, lying on the ice, then jumping up and racing to the blue line, kneeling on the ice, jumping up, racing to the blue line, going flat on his back, jumping up, racing to the blue line.
“Training secret,” he says, grinning impishly. “My father told me the first five steps are the most important.”
Which might explain his acceleration today. When people talk about Sergei Fedorov, they talk first about the way he skates. All from Steve Yzerman to the kid selling pizzas at Joe Louis Arena seem to think Fedorov is the best skater they have ever seen. That’s on top of his excellent defensive skills, and completely ignoring his stellar 56 goals and 120 points this season. He was a focal point of this year’s All- Star Game, and Wayne Gretzky, upon breaking Gordie Howe’s all-time goal mark last month, said the guy most likely to surpass him someday would be . . . Fedorov.
Hard to believe the Red Wings acquired this guy with the 74th pick of the 1989 draft.
I mean, who were the other 73?
And where are they now? He remembered his roots
Some, of course, are playing. Some are out of the game. Few — if any — had to surrender a culture, a passport and a way of life. And few had to endure the cooing temptations of America-for-the-suddenly-rich-immigrant.
Many is the foreign athlete who drowns in the waters of Fun City, USA. Remember Petr Klima? He was whisked out of Czechoslovakia, landed in Detroit, got behind the wheel of a sports car and never hit the brakes. Several arrests later, he was shipped out, his bright promise turning into just another dull reflection.
Fedorov began with a sports car, too. Not long after he defected in 1990
— walked off the Soviet team at the Goodwill Games in Seattle and flew in Mike Ilitch’s private jet to Detroit — he was at a local Corvette dealership.
“Pick one,” they told him, courtesy of the Red Wings. “Pick a Corvette.”
He did. A nice burgundy model. That he didn’t drive straight from that showroom to Doomsville, that he watched his money and respected his luck, is testament to his strong family ethic and upbringing. Not surprisingly, Fedorov has since brought his mother, father and younger brother over from Russia. They all live together in Sergei’s house in Farmington Hills.
“It’s great,” he says of the arrangement. “I get to speak Russian again, and I get meals cooked just like I was back home.”
And maybe this is the secret. No, not the borscht and sour cream and meat, rice and caviar that Fedorov calls his favorite home-cooked dinner — but the reminders of where you came from. The memories. The lessons. The perspective you get only from looking at your present through the prism of your past.
“My grandmother,” Fedorov says, “she died not too long ago. But when she was alive, I called her a few times from here. She couldn’t get it. She didn’t know from America. She would say, ‘When are you coming home?’ like I was away for the weekend.
“I would say, ‘I don’t know, Grandma, I think I’ll stay with my friends tonight. Maybe I’ll come over next week.’
“If I really explained to her where I was . . .”
He shakes his head. “If I really explained to her where I was, she would think I’m on the moon.” Sergei bloomed this season
Fedorov — who now uses phrases such as “It’s cool” and “Yeah, sure” — has proved himself good at transformations. The Red Wings will be looking for another starting tonight, the playoffs, first round, against the San Jose Sharks. Great players step up their games at money time.
It’s money time.
But the odds are with Fedorov. This season, when Yzerman went down with a neck injury, he increased his role as team leader, and had his best year ever. At the All-Star Game, despite a career that had previously been media-shy, Fedorov transformed himself again, into a willing conversationalist who stood patiently through wave after wave of interviews, and left NHL reporters smiling as they walked away.
Now he stands as a legitimate MVP candidate of the world’s finest hockey league.
“Did you know you would be this good a player when you came here?” he is asked.
“No,” he says, “I took a chance. I had played against some NHL teams, and I thought I could be a good player. But I was 20 years old. I just took a chance, and said to myself, ‘You have to adjust, whatever happens, you have to adjust.’ “
It’s a long way from Pskov. And yet Fedorov, in the middle of the conversation, remembers a detail that might be lost on many of his North American teammates. “Every year, when I was a kid, we skated on a river, and there was a plant that would freeze in the middle of the water. It was a green plant with a white flower, I can still see it, because part of it would stick up above the ice. We used to skate around this plant, looking at it, skating around it. It was good exercise.”
His eyes get a faraway look. It’s the type of detail that makes Fedorov’s memory special, and reflects the uniqueness of his story. After all, in a certain way, his talent is very much like that plant: born in a Russian winter, frozen in place, above the ice then, as it is today, sticking out, as the world skates around him, spinning its head and going wow, wow, wow.