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From Red Army to Red, White and Blue

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
No matter how good the 2008-09 Washington Capitals turn out to be, they won’t be the best team Sergei Fedorov has ever played for. The 38-year-old veteran center re-signed with Washington last week, signing a one-year deal for the upcoming campaign. Fedorov has played on three Stanley Cup championship teams in his career – all with Detroit – but none of those heralded clubs ranks as the best he has ever played with, either.

When he was a mere lad of 16, Fedorov played regularly on the fabled and dominant Red Army team that finished the season with a 36-2-2 record. Looking at the roster of that team is like looking at a Who’s Who’s of Russian Hockey for the 1980s and 1990s.

A reporter idly wondered how that 1986-87 Red Army squad would have fared in the NHL, back in the days before Russian players dotted NHL rosters. Were any of the Wings’ Cup champion teams as good as that Red Army team?

“No, never, never, never as good as the Red Army team,” declares Fedorov. “No way. Not even close. Not even [bleeping] close.”

How would the Red Army club hold up playing in the NHL in those days?

“It would be a walk in the park,” Fedorov states. “Three and a half lines were on the national team out of that team, plus two goalies. Figure it out. They won everything. They won absolutely everything. Not just championships, but almost every game they played they won. Think about it. A season in Russia, it used to be if you were with the national team, the season would be like 100 games, too. They won almost every one of them. They lost five or 10 at the most, every year for five or 10 years in a row.

“Usually on the Red Army team in those days, if you were a center you were responsible for defense and offense. As much as defense. You cannot let the guard down, so you’ve been taught to lead both ends. You’re like an operator to connect those two.”

Last Feb. 26, the Capitals made three separate trades at the NHL’s trade deadline. The second of those swaps brought Fedorov from Columbus to the District. At that moment, Fedorov became the oldest player the Capitals have ever obtained in a trade. Monday’s announcement that Fedorov has agreed to terms for another season with the Caps ensures that he’ll become the third oldest player ever to pull on a Washington sweater when he takes the ice this fall. Only Doug Mohns (41 years old in 1974-75) and Adam Oates (39 in 2001-02) have ever skated for the Caps later in their lives.

Heading into his 19th NHL season, Fedorov is a few seasons past his prime to be sure. But if he’s lost a step in his once-spry skating stride, it’s a step that many players never had to begin with.

For the better part of the last two decades, Fedorov has epitomized style, grace and class on the ice. One of the smoothest and best skaters to ever play in the NHL, Fedorov is also one of the best defensive forwards to ever play the game.

On the ice and off the ice, Fedorov is an experienced hand who has endured many obstacles and celebrated many triumphs over the course of his years in the game. Adding him to a young and impressionable Washington locker room a few months ago helped fuel the team’s late push toward a Southeast Division championship.

“There’s a lot more than meets the eye,” said Caps bench boss Bruce Boudreau of Fedorov last March. “He’s been a tremendous influence on our team, and not just the Russian guys. He’s been a calming influence and yet at the same time he gets more excited or as excited as anybody on the bench when we succeed. You get a Hart Trophy winner and a three-time Stanley Cup champion doing that and it’s pretty impressive. He talks to individuals and he’s helping guys on face-offs. He’s like another coach out there.”

When he arrived in Washington on Feb. 27, Fedorov joined a youthful Washington team that had just a few players who had celebrated their 30th birthdays. Three of those – including 31-year-old captain Chris Clark – were sidelined for the season at the time. Fedorov also joined a team with a pair of young Russian stars in 22-year-old Alex Ovechkin and 24-year-old Alexander Semin.

“It’s very important for us, especially for us young guys,” said Ovechkin shortly after the deal was announced. “We’ll see how he practices, how he thinks about the game. And especially his experience. He has won everything.”

“We know this guy can do everything: score goals, win the battles, win the face-offs, block shots. When young guys like me, Greener, [Nicklas Backstrom] and Semin see the kind of player he is, it gives us good emotion and experience.”

His days in Columbus sapped some of Fedorov’s zest for the game of hockey. Better than a point-per-game player for his career before he donned a Blue Jackets sweater, Fedorov has not totaled as many as 50 points in a season since before the lockout. When he arrived in Washington, he was not sure what the future held for him beyond the 2007-08 season.  

“I’ll be honest with you guys right now,” he said at his introductory press conference on Feb. 27. “I’m going to consider all my options after the season, in the summertime.”

Including retirement?

“Including retirement, yes.”

Fedorov also hinted that he would consider closing out his career in Russia, playing in the newly formed Continental Hockey League. At the time, the Caps were far more concerned with making the playoffs than they were with Fedorov’s future plans.

“With losing [Michael] Nylander [to a rotator cuff injury] I was trying to find another center without giving the future away,” said Caps general manager George McPhee in explaining the Fedorov trade. “The price seemed right on that.

“You’ve got a veteran guy who has had success in this league, is good on face-offs, he’s good defensively and he can still make a play. He doesn’t have to be the go-to guy like he has been in the past. He has to fit in and help us.”

He did all that and more, which is why he will be back for 2008-09 even though Nylander is now healthy.

In Fedorov’s 18 regular season games as a Capital, he totaled two goals and 13 points. Projected out to a full 82-game season, that’s a pace of 59 points. He added a goal and five points in seven playoff contests, his first Stanley Cup playoff activity in five years. With Fedorov in the lineup, Washington was 14-4 in those 18 regular season games.

The Continental Hockey League will have to wait another year. The Hockey Hall of Fame will have to wait another year. Sergei Fedorov is the last player still playing in the NHL who had to defect from his native country in order to play in the league. Fedorov will spend his 18th NHL season in Washington with the Capitals. Almost half of his lifetime ago, Fedorov’s NHL journey was just beginning.

During Washington’s recent playoff run, a reporter noted Fedorov’s polished English.

“I didn’t have really much choice, because I burned every bridge I had,” the Russian center responded matter-of-factly. “Because I defected. It’s not like I got the visa and came here. I had to leave and I had to leave for only hockey reasons. I’m glad I did it, but it was a difficult time.

“Maybe I was never going to see my parents, never going to see my friends back in Russia, never going to see Russia period. But [Mikhail Gorbachev] came in power, there were some changes and he gave me a chance to come back. Four years is a long time when you play hockey somewhere abroad by yourself on your own.

“I was 20. I didn’t have a choice. I had to learn English. I had to learn culture. I had to learn how things were on the ice, off the ice. I had help, no doubt. People who were affiliated with me or worked for me or helped me out, they were great people. There, I consider myself very lucky. It was amazing.”

When a 20-year-old decides to leave his native country surreptitiously, it is no small undertaking; no light decision. Fedorov’s resolve to keep his decision to himself is what kept him from changing his mind. He did not seek the counsel of his parents.

“They were pretty much in shock because they didn’t know what I was going to do back then,” says Fedorov of his parents. “I could not talk to them about it, because there would be too many opinions mixing together and then I would have second thoughts. I was 20 years old; I didn’t want to have a second thought. I just wanted to do what I think was right at the particular moment, and that’s it.”

That decision turned out as well as most of the thousands of on-ice decisions he has made over the last two decades. In Seattle to compete in the Goodwill Games 18 summers ago, Fedorov slipped out of his hotel and went to the airport. He boarded a plane bound for Detroit.

A total of 202 players born in the former U.S.S.R. have played in the NHL. When Fedorov arrived in Detroit in the summer of 1990, only a handful had played in the league.

Fedorov scored a goal in his first NHL game, against the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 4, 1990. He finished second on the team in scoring as a rookie and was named to the league’s all-rookie team. As the only Russian on Detroit’s team that season, Fedorov immersed himself in the language and the culture, and he relied on several veteran Wings to help show him the ropes.

“Back then I remember names like Lee Norwood, Rick Zombo,” recalls Fedorov. “Obviously Steve Yzerman, all those guys. Bob Probert. Joey Kocur. Shawn Burr; he was my roommate for five years. All those guys tremendously helped me out, especially to adjust to the United States and to adjust to the 20,000 screaming fans and the new idea of playing seven months straight.”

In his fourth season in the league (1993-94), Fedorov totaled 56 goals and 120 points. He became the first Russian to win the Hart Trophy, the Pearson Award and the Selke Trophy. He won a second Selke Trophy two years later.

Beginning in 1994-95, Fedorov started a run in which he totaled 20 or more points in four straight playoff seasons. (Islander greats Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier are the only other players in NHL history to achieve this feat.) Detroit won the Stanley Cup in twice during that span (1997 and 1998). Fedorov put up 19 points when the Wings claimed their third Cup in six seasons in 2002.

During the 1990s, Fedorov was one of the league’s top talents. He combined a powerful skating stride and excellent speed with dazzling stickhandling and an ability to make plays at top speed. If that wasn’t enough, he was a lethal shooter using the slapshot, wrister or backhander. Throw in the fact that he could play the wing and even seamlessly move back to the blueline and play defense, and Fedorov stands alone as the most complete and versatile player of his generation.

As the years went by, Fedorov added leadership to his résumé. That, as much as anything he did on the ice, is what cinched his contract extension with the Caps.

“It’s the one thing I hadn’t thought that much about when I traded for Sergei,” recalls McPhee. “I saw the ability on the ice and didn’t think much about the leadership factor although I should have. But he was incredible. I couldn’t have been more impressed with him then. And the way that our players talked about him in our season-ending meetings made it clear that this was a guy we have to have back.”

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