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100 Greatest Players

Sergei Fedorov: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Two-way forward won three Stanley Cup titles with Red Wings, leads all Russians in assists, points

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

He was a shiny new star for the NHL's shiny new era, one suddenly infused by the great skill arriving from Eastern Europe and powered by the League's biggest marketing push to date. Who better than the boyishly handsome Sergei Fedorov to help carry the flag for expanding hockey's appeal to a new generation and represent the growing international nature of the sport's top league?

"Sergei could do it all," said Scotty Bowman, his coach for nine seasons with the Detroit Red Wings.

 

 Video: Sergei Fedorov leads all Russians in assists, points

 

From his breakaway speed to his astonishing passes, from his wicked shots to his puck-stealing ploys, from his goalie-deflating dekes to his solid body checks, from his offensive prowess to his defensive excellence, Fedorov's silky actions and inexhaustible energy wowed teammates and foes alike.

Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman called him "the most talented player I've ever seen." Teammate and fellow 2015 Hall of Fame inductee Nicklas Lidstrom said Fedorov "could do things at a higher speed than anyone else." 

"He did everything really well -- skate, pass, shoot. He had great intelligence. Great faceoff guy. Played every position on the ice," former Dallas Stars center Mike Modano said. "You could never push him off the puck. His leg strength was so above everybody else and that made him impossible to get off-balance."

Credit Fedorov's father Viktor, a youth hockey coach, for that.

 

SERGEI FEDOROV CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats 
Games: 1,248 | Goals: 483 | Assists: 696 | Points: 1,179

 

"My father made me jump steps," Fedorov told Dan Wood of The Hockey News. "We lived on the fifth floor, so one at a time I had to jump, almost every time I was going up. It wasn't like work. It was fun."

Respect for European players among NHL players in Fedorov's day was hard to win, but his talents could not be denied. In 1993-94, at 24, he scored 56 goals and 120 points, finished second to Wayne Gretzky in scoring and won the Hart Trophy, the Lester B. Pearson Award (now the Ted Lindsay Award) and the Selke Trophy.  

He never reached those scoring heights again. The NHL became defensive-oriented in the mid-'90s, but Fedorov's value remained undiminished. He posted a plus-221 rating during the 1990s under Bowman's four-line strategy of playing fast to shut down opponents, and he would win the Selke again in 1996.  

"He's had to give up a bit of his ice time," teammate Dino Ciccarelli told Hockey Player magazine in 1996. "But if he was on any other team playing the amount of minutes he was a couple of years ago, he'd be getting 150-200 points."  

Fedorov never complained. It was how he was taught in the Soviet Union. "It was important to be an all-around player, to skate well, to pass well, to battle for the puck," he said. "Scoring came last." 

Still, he scored 30 or more goals 10 times. His 483 goals during an 18-year NHL career made him the highest goal-scorer among Russian-born NHL players when he retired in 2009. He had 30 assists or better 16 times and his 696 NHL assists lead all Russian NHL players, as do his 1,179 points. 

Come playoff time, the three-time Stanley Cup champion sparkled. His 183 games, 52 goals, 124 assists and 176 points lead all Russian NHL players. 

Fedorov had an indefinable something -- a cool -- that set him apart. Perhaps it was the ease with which he executed difficult on-ice maneuvers or his flamboyance while playing in a blue-collar town, or his coming from a different culture, or what a few writers called his "sensitivity" or a combination of it all. That cool only enhanced Fedorov's status as one of more celebrated players of his time. 

When Nike jumped into the hockey business in the mid-1990s, Fedorov was signed as a spokesman. He assisted in designing the skates and filmed commercials to promote them, enhancing his visibility. 

Fedorov was born Dec. 13, 1969, in Pskov, a small city in southwest Russia. Viktor Fedorov put Sergei on skates at three. At nine, the family moved to Apatity, a smaller town inside the Arctic Circle where the long, frigid winters assisted Viktor in training his son. Sergei could spend up to seven hours a day skating on a local river, his mother Natalia bringing food to maximize his ice time. It sometimes grew so cold he could only skate 10 minutes at a time. He'd huddle by bonfires along the shore for 20 minutes and then go out again. 

He'd also practice and scrimmage with his father's team.

"I was amazed that the men would pass the puck back to me," Fedorov told author Chris McDonnel in "For the Love of the Game." "That gave me so much confidence."

Soviet hockey officials began scouting him at 13. He moved to Minsk before he turned 16 to play in the Soviet league's second division for one season, then moved to Moscow in 1986 to be mentored by Viktor Tikhonov at CSKA, the Red Army Team. Selected to the Soviet national junior squad, Fedorov was named to the 1988 World Junior Championship All-Tournament Team after the Soviet Union won a silver medal. They won gold the next year, with Fedorov and his wings, Alex Mogilny and Pavel Bure, among the top scorers.

Meanwhile, the Red Wings were rebuilding and weighed drafting Fedorov. They considered him the world's top 18-year-old, but understood Soviet picks might end up wasted picks. GM Jim Devellano was willing to take the risk. Over the next year, the Red Wings quietly persuaded Fedorov to defect, which he did in the summer of 1990 when the Soviet national team played in Portland. Arriving in Detroit, he selected jersey number 91, the reverse of Yzerman's 19. 

"He told me he wanted 'to be like Stevie,'" Red Wings equipment manager Mark Brennan said. 

"He has a dazzling, up-tempo style that reminds some of a young Gilbert Perreault," wrote Joe Lapointe in The New York Times with Fedorov one month into his NHL career. "A center, Fedorov kills penalties, skates on the power play and sets up teammates so quickly that his passes sometimes surprise them." 

His 79-point rookie season earned Calder Trophy runner-up honors. Three seasons later he'd be recognized as one of the game's best players.

In his first real crack at the Stanley Cup in 1995, which ended with a disappointing sweep by the New Jersey Devils, Fedorov scored in three of the four games in the Final after a bravura performance in the second round -- four goals and seven assists in a sweep of the San Jose Sharks. Fedorov led all postseason scorers with 17 assists and 24 points in 17 games. 

Early the following season, after Detroit acquired Igor Larionov, Bowman assembled The Russian Five -- Fedorov, Larionov and Slave Kozlov up front, Slava Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov on defense. 

"Brought up with the Russian hockey values of sharing the puck and the ability to curl away from defensive pressure, they sometimes resembled hockey's version of the Harlem Globetrotters and their famous keep-away acts," wrote Adrian Dater in his book "Blood Feud." "The best of the five was probably Fedorov." 

Ever the mastermind, Bowman deployed the unit periodically, when the course of the game dictated he needed their pace and skill. Coming in the era of stifling defenses, their style was a game-changer, creating a puck-possession identity for the Red Wings that many NHL teams have subsequently adopted. Playing mostly right wing with the Russian Five, Fedorov led the Red Wings in 1995-96 with 39 goals, 68 assists and 107 points. 

The unit was together on Dec. 26, 1996, against the Washington Capitals when Fedorov scored five goals, the last an overtime winner. Four came on assists from Konstantinov. During 1996-97, Bowman used Fedorov on defense when injuries thinned the depth, and his superior skating and hockey IQ made it work. 

"He was outstanding for about six weeks," Bowman said years later. "He could have been an all-star defenseman." 

The season ended with a sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Final, Detroit's first championship since 1955. After a scoreless first four games, Fedorov dominated the next 15 to lead the Red Wings in assists (12) and points (20). 

During the offseason the Red Wings and Fedorov, a restricted free agent, hit a contract impasse. He sat out most of the following season until an offer sheet from the Carolina Hurricanes in February 1998 was matched by the Red Wings.

Once the postseason began, Fedorov regained his form. His 10 postseason goals led the NHL and his 20 points trailed only Yzerman's 24. He scored six goals in Detroit's first-round series against the Phoenix Coyotes, a critical shorthanded breakaway goal that tilted Game 4 and the second round against the St. Louis Blues, the winning goal in the clinching Game 6 against the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final and the back-breaking winner of Game 3 in the sweep of the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final. 

"I've always said I don't know if we would have won the second Cup in '98 if he hadn't been there," Bowman told Ansar Khan of MLive.com. "He made a difference in a lot of games."

In 2002, Detroit's third Cup run of the era, Fedorov ranked third in assists (14) -- including setting up Brendan Shanahan's Cup-winning goal -- and tied for third in points (19). 

A year later, after leading Detroit in scoring with 83 points, his most productive output in seven seasons, Fedorov signed a free agent contract with the Anaheim Ducks, much to the displeasure of Hockeytown fans. He had a decent first season, with 31 goals and 34 assists, but never approached those numbers again. He was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2005 and to Washington in 2008 before leaving the NHL in 2009 at age 39 to play in Russia. 

"He's one of the best I ever had." Bowman said at Fedorov's Hall of Fame induction. "Coming from a man who coached the likes of Yzerman, Mario Lemieux and Guy Lafleur, that is indeed high praise."

 

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