WINGS, FEDOROV IN $38-MILLION FACE-OFF

NAGANO, Japan — They have a lot of gadgets in this country, but I wish they’d invent one that instantly replays the things that were said six or seven months ago. That way, when Sergei Fedorov is offered an insanely rich contract to play for a team other than the Red Wings, I could hit a button and hear these quotes:

Fedorov: “I don’t think I will ever leave Detroit, do you? …I never ask for that…. I want to stay here forever….”

Mike Ilitch: “Sergei’s not going anywhere. Are you kidding? If I let Sergei go, they’d run me out of town.”

Actual quotes. They seem funny now, in light of Fedorov’s $38-million offer sheet from the Carolina Hurricanes, which the Red Wings must match by Wednesday to keep him. Sergei has said he doesn’t want to play for Detroit anymore, so he has already contradicted last year’s statements.

And if Ilitch refuses to hand Sergei a ridiculous $14-million bonus check — or perhaps even $26 million, depending on the incentives earned — then he will have contradicted himself as well.

So what does this prove? That sports are hypocritical? Well, sure, but hypocrisy burns on a lot of levels. So those of you who are now saying, “The heck with Fedorov, let him go,” might also want to say it into a tape recorder. That way, in a few months, if the Wings are knocked out of the playoffs by a lack of scoring or puck movement, you’ll think twice before groaning, “Man, if we only had Sergei . . .”

Let’s face it, folks. What we have here is a good old-fashioned squeeze play. Sergei has been trying to squeeze the Wings for a big-money contract that takes him only to unrestricted free agency. The Wings have been trying to squeeze Sergei for less money and either a shorter or longer deal. Now Carolina wants to squeeze Detroit into a corner, where the only options of escape are:

1. Pay a ton of money to Fedorov right now.

2. Make a trade for Carolina players they don’t really want.

3. Let him go for draft picks.

That groaning you hear is the Red Wings’ front office.

Carolina’s ugly gambit

But while the Wings’ brass checks its bank balance, fans should examine their anger. If it’s the money athletes make that bothers you — and that’s funny, because few people complain about Brendan Shanahan’s or Steve Yzerman’s money, even though, if you took 40 hungry families and gave them $100,000 apiece, you still wouldn’t equal their one-year salaries — then remember, these latest dollar signs come from an owner, not a player.

It is Carolina, not Fedorov, who put the $38 million on the table and dared the Wings to match it. And it’s some dare. The way Carolina has the offer constructed, a match means Ilitch has to write a check for almost half the value of the deal right now. And he has to hand it to a guy who didn’t even bother to play for the Wings the first 58 games of the year.

Distasteful? You bet. That’s what Carolina is counting on.

“It’s not the money,” says Jim Rutherford, the Hurricanes’ general manager and a former Wings goalie. “If the Wings want to keep Sergei, they can come up with the money.

“But do they want to give it to a guy who has said repeatedly he doesn’t want to be there? That’s what we’re looking for.”

(By the way, if you think this is a big money game of chicken between Michigan rivals Peter Karmanos, owner of Compuware and the Hurricanes, and Ilitch, owner of the Wings, well, you may be right. But Rutherford is quick to point out, “If that stuff really mattered, Detroit never would have gotten Brendan Shanahan from us.”)

Anyhow, if you’re like me, you wonder why anyone would give Sergei that much money — especially up front.

This is a guy whose biggest Achilles heel has been his work ethic, particularly in games that are not crucial. If he gets $14 million the moment he laces up his skates, where is the incentive for the years to come?

But that’s the way pro sports are played. Sergei, who hasn’t drawn a paycheck all year, was one happy cowboy Thursday.

“I am excited to be getting back into the NHL,” he said.

Yes. But with whom?

Want a Cup? Pay up

For my money — and it’s not my money, which is an important distinction — I bite the bullet and match the deal. Is it a ridiculous sum? Of course. But so are many hockey salaries now. Is Sergei a pain in the butt and at times egotistical? Yes. Is he unpopular in parts of the Wings locker room? Yes.

But if Stanley Cups were won by popularity and good character, team captain Yzerman would have 10 of them by now, not one.

Which is why even Yzerman said, “If he comes back and plays hard, nobody will have a problem with him.” That takes a lot for the captain to admit, because he privately doesn’t care for Fedorov or his prima donna ways.

But the captain knows talent, and he knows that it was Sergei, only 28, who led the team in playoff scoring last year. And if the Wings, already missing injured defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov and goalie Mike Vernon, want to hoist a Stanley Cup this year, they’ll do it by having more talent than the other guys, not more draft picks, and not more Carolina Hurricanes.

It’s funny. When I asked Rutherford whether he really thought Fedorov was worth the money — especially for a franchise that can’t draw anybody — he said, “When the Wings play here, we have big crowds. And 90 percent of the fans are wearing ‘Fedorov’ jerseys.”

Hmm. What do they know that we don’t?

Or should we come back in six months and see what they’re wearing then?

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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