by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

You leave work Friday afternoon, the Red Wings are talking contract with Sergei Fedorov. You come in Monday morning, and Fedorov is a Mighty Duck.

Talk about a lost weekend.

What happened? How did the Wings let their most talented player get away for nothing?

Well, as Orange County real estate agents begin hunting for a new mansion, here’s the bottom line:

Sergei saw himself one way, the Wings saw him another.

This is how Sergei saw himself: as a star. That means minutes. That means treatment. That means clothes, photos, gossip, the works. Some of that comes from before he ever got here, when he was a wunderkind in Russia, embraced as a national treasure. Some of it comes from his time as paramour — and, briefly, husband — to Anna Kournikova, who has the star treatment thing down to a science.

And some of it comes from his own head. Fedorov looked around the locker room and saw that he was the fastest and most talented guy on the roster. By his logic, that makes him the best. And being the best makes him the biggest star, right?

Not so fast. Detroit — and hockey in general — celebrates effort and heart as much as talent, and in this town, during Fedorov’s 13-year stay, the Wings were Steve Yzerman’s team — in body and spirit. Not once did Fedorov achieve the adulation or applause that Yzerman enjoys — not from fans, management or teammates.

“Well, hey,” critics will say, “he never earned it the way Yzerman did” — and they might be right.

But once again, Sergei saw things one way, the Wings saw them another.

Wings deserve criticism

Which brings us to the home team. I’ve heard many things said about Fedorov’s departure, but no one has offered much criticism of Red Wings management.

Allow me.

I don’t care how much of a prima donna you might think the guy is: When your most gifted player gets away for nothing — not even a draft pick — you didn’t handle your business well. It’s that simple. It might have been unavoidable. But one of the tricks of great managers is to slither out of the
“unavoidable” before it bites them in the butt.

The Wings, in hindsight, might have assumed too much “boy who cried wolf” with Fedorov. They gauged the marketplace, saw a shrinking dollar, and thought their offers would stack up with any others. They were also, understandably, weary of Sergei’s confusing ego.

But if you want a thoroughbred, you better expect some bucking. And, if you don’t want the guy, the time to do something was last year, when you could have traded him. Why do you think the Pistons got rid of their best player, Jerry Stackhouse, with one year left on his deal? They knew he was approaching free agency and they knew they didn’t want to meet his demands.

Once you commit to keeping Fedorov through the end of his contract, you’ve made an implicit decision to sign him to another. This isn’t a salary cap sport, remember. There is no bar to stay under. It does you no good to let him walk.

“But they didn’t let him walk,” critics say. “They offered him deals. He refused them.”

Well, once again, the Wings saw it one way, and Sergei saw it another.

Money not the only issue

“Obviously, I was trying to sign with Detroit,” Fedorov said during a conference call from Russia, “but every time it came close, we were not able to reach some kind of agreement.”

The Wings, of course, disagree. They say Fedorov turned down several offers and even stopped talking with them toward the end.

But again they are thinking like management, not like Fedorov. They were right. The marketplace wouldn’t offer Fedorov more — but that assumes it’s all about money. With most players, maybe it is. With Fedorov, there was more. There was the star treatment that he privately coveted.

If they really wanted to keep him, the Wings should have gone back to their original offer, five years, $50 million. Marketplace? Since when do the Wings observe the marketplace? They make the marketplace.

And in their marketplace, Nicklas Lidstrom earns $10 million a year. In Sergei’s psyche, that probably set the bar. He wanted to be the highest-paid player. And if that’s what it took to keep him, the Wings should have done it.

Instead, he disappears for nothing, and Detroit loses its most talented skater. I know there are some Red Wings who are privately relieved to be rid of his self-absorbed behavior. But he is a great player, and his points, assists and speed will not be replaced by any one body on this roster.

As for fans who are stunned that Sergei would ditch the only NHL team he’s ever known? Remember, this is a guy who walked away from his homeland at age 20. He’s made tougher transitions. Personally, I think he now views himself as a New York- or L.A.-type celebrity, and no Detroit offer would have satiated that.

But it’s not my job to know that. It’s the Wings’. And had they known, had they really gotten into his head, they might have decided the time to say good-bye was when they still could have gotten a star in return, instead of watching Sergei vanish in their rearview mirror.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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