It could have all been different. Tonight, when the Red Wings and Hurricanes skate out for Game 3 in Raleigh, the first Stanley Cup final in North Carolina, and the building explodes and the Wings are roundly booed and the Hurricanes are cheered so loudly you’ll need concrete in your ears, it could have all been reversed for Sergei Fedorov.

He could have been on the side of the angels.

Their angels, of course. Fedorov, you’ll recall, was offered a king’s ransom to join the budding Carolina franchise four years ago. Peter Karmanos, the Detroit-born Hurricanes owner, loved the idea of signing Fedorov or, short of that, at least jacking up Mike Ilitch’s payroll.

He succeeded at the latter. The Wings reluctantly matched the $38-million offer sheet — easily making Fedorov the team’s highest-paid player at the time — but hardly its most popular.

“I remember those days well,” Fedorov said, preparing to leave for the plane Friday afternoon. “During warm-ups at Joe Louis Arena, I would hear the people booing me.”

He paused. Then the 32-year-old forward said something notable. “Maybe I deserved some of it. I didn’t really talk to the media or anyone about my situation, to try and explain my side. My agents advised me not to. And maybe I didn’t want to.

“I think I took it a little too personal.”

Hmm. I can’t tell you everything about Sergei Fedorov, but I can tell you this: He wouldn’t have said that in 1998.

Growing up.

Image, reputation important

Fedorov, for my money, has been the Wings’ most consistently excellent player throughout the past few playoff weeks. He flies on the ice. He plays huge minutes. He is a swingman for the Wings whenever injury or fatigue plagues other forwards. He kills penalties, he shadows attackers, he leads the rushes into the other team’s zone and, as if this weren’t enough, he’s had some huge goals when Detroit most needed them.

He is behind only Steve Yzerman in playoff points and assists. But then, Fedorov was always gifted from the gods. What makes this year’s campaign more special is the lack of attitude or aloofness. There is no pouting, no finger pointing, no veiled complaints about playing time.

When I asked him why, Fedorov, as often happens, answered with something from leftfield.

“I had an embarrassing incident happen not too long ago, when I run too close to the law.”

He was referring to an impaired driving charge in Royal Oak last September, after he swerved his black BMW around a stopped car and ran a red light. Police said Fedorov registered a blood-alcohol level of .09 percent, just below the drunken mark, but above the .08 impaired limit.

It was not huge news. But it mattered to Fedorov. He worried about his image and his standing. In the months that followed, he said he came to lean on some new friends, particularly an Italian family in West Bloomfield, who have helped him put things into perspective.

“They have become good friends,” he said. “I have people to talk to. It has helped me. If we win the Cup, I want to take it and share it with them.”

Speed, skating prowess remain

Remember those white skates Fedorov used to wear? He still has them.

“They are in my museum,” he said.

You have a museum?

“Well, my basement. I keep stuff there.”

Museum. Basement. What’s the difference? The fact is, those white skates, part of a huge Nike campaign, were the kind of thing that made Fedorov stand out, or worse, look like he was trying to stand out.

He doesn’t wear them now. He looks the same as the other Red Wings — except he often skates faster and is more effective.

Let’s face it. It is a joy to watch Fedorov play. Even his critics admit that. The fluidity, the skating prowess, the crisp passing — and now, more and more, the defense. “I would like to be able to play well enough to be considered again for the Selke Trophy (for best defensive forward, which he won in 1994 and ’96). I want to prove to myself that I can still be good at both ends.”

Four years ago, after he signed back with Detroit, Fedorov found Ilitch and quietly assured him, “I will earn every penny.”

The ledger sheet is quickly balancing. Tonight, in Raleigh, when the Wings are introduced and the boos rain down, most of them will be fueled with anger. A few will be tinged with regret.

Guess who.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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