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Trust helped Fedorov travel from Russia to Hall

by Dan Rosen takes a look at each of the seven individuals who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on Nov. 9.

Jim Lites sat in the lobby of the Shilo Inn in Portland, Ore., in July 1990. He was waiting, hoping, wondering, fearing and scheming.

Lites, now president of the Dallas Stars, was working as an executive vice president for the Detroit Red Wings. Thirteen months before Lites sat in that airport hotel lobby, the Red Wings picked a Russian center with supreme skills named Sergei Fedorov in the fourth round of the 1989 NHL Draft.

Fedorov would eventually become the all-time leading scorer among Russians with 483 goals and 696 assists for 1,179 points in 1,248 NHL games. He would score 400 goals and 954 points in 908 games with the Red Wings. He would win the Stanley Cup three times with the Red Wings and score 176 points in 183 Stanley Cup Playoff games. He would win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player once and the Selke Trophy as its top defensive forward twice.

On Monday, Fedorov will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"A world-class talent, a great two-way player," current Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "Graceful, great hockey sense, great skill. He could bring you out of your seat when he was coming up the ice in full flight."

But at the time the Red Wings drafted him, it was a stretch, because nobody could be certain Fedorov would leave the Soviet Union for North America. Players from Cold War countries had to clear significant hurdles to play in the NHL.

That's why the Red Wings sent Lites to get Fedorov. He had a history of getting players out of their home country and bringing them to Detroit.

Lites and Red Wings assistant GM Nick Polano brought Petr Klima out of Czechoslovakia in 1985, at the height of the Cold War, a time when it was dangerous to even attempt such a mission that was more snatch-and-grab than by the book.

Fedorov's defection was different and not as scary as Klima's, but clandestine just the same.

"I remember [Red Wings general manager] Jimmy Devellano looking at me going, 'Well Jimmy, now it's your job. We drafted him, you go get him,'" Lites said. "We had done it before, so there was a certain level of confidence we had. Times were changing. If we could get Klima out, we were going to be able to eventually swing through this."

So back at the Shilo Inn, Lites sat and waited for Fedorov to return from Memorial Coliseum, where he played for the Soviets in an exhibition game in advance of the 1990 Goodwill Games. Polano, an interpreter, and a driver were in the waiting car. The Red Wings had a private jet ready to go.

Fedorov already met with the Red Wings contingent at the hotel prior to the game. He played that night only because he wanted to, which added to Lites' angst.

"The biggest fear was failure," Lites said.

But Fedorov's luggage was already in the car. Lites felt he was ready.

"He was the last guy off the bus, probably at 11 o'clock at night," Lites said. "They were going to a team meal, and you know Russian kids at that time were poor, so they're dressed poorly, for lack of a better term. Sergei was in a suit. I mean, he was ready to go."

Fedorov wasn't ready to go eight months earlier, when he met with Lites in a suite at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, where the Soviet team was in town for a Super Series game. Lites had a contract in hand, along with pictures of an apartment they were going to rent for Fedorov and the car they were going to buy.

Lites wanted Fedorov to leave right then and there, but he couldn't. He was still in the military.

"He would have been considered a felon in the country where he resided," Lites said. "They could have charged him with a felony and the U.S. immigration department would not have given him a visa to play for us. So he was smart."

Fedorov was discharged shortly after that meeting. He finished his season with CSKA Moscow and wound up with Lites in the Shilo Inn.

"He did not speak a word of English when I had met with him at the Drake; it was all done through an interpreter," Lites said. "So he walks in [to the Shilo Inn], I stand up in this little lobby, he walks up to me and says, 'Ready to go Jim,' in English.

"We walked out the side door of the hotel, the driver was waiting, the interpreter and Nick Polano were waiting, and away we went."

Lites didn't have anywhere to take Fedorov when they got to Detroit, so Fedorov moved in with him.

"My assistant at the time had a cousin who was a guy Sergei's age and he spoke Russian, and he was also a big workout guy," Lites said. "I moved the two of them into my house. Those two guys lived with us for about three weeks or a month until Sergei had friends who came over. He moved into the Riverfront Apartments next to Joe Louis Arena. That's when Sergei started his life and his Hall of Fame career."

Fedorov's impact as a 20-year-old was immediate, and extreme. He left an impression on Steve Yzerman, who at one point called him the most talented player he had ever seen. Yzerman said Fedorov could dominate a game like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

"His skating, his puck handling, his shot; he could do anything at an elite level," Yzerman said. "But certainly his skating ability was his best attribute, not just in straight out speed but in turning and stopping and starting and moving from side to side; to me he's one of the best skaters I've ever come across."

Yzerman remembered Fedorov being quiet at the start of his NHL career. The language barrier was a problem.

"He was around kind of taking everything in," Yzerman said. "I've been around younger Russian players, even in retirement now, and it's a difficult thing. None of us realize how hard it is for them. If you ever go to Russia or some country where they don't speak a word of English, put yourself there as a young person, and everyone just assumes you know what they're saying; it's a hard thing. He observed, listened and took it all in."

Bryan Murray, Detroit's coach when Fedorov defected, said the key to getting the best out of Fedorov early in his career was to put his faith and trust in him.

Hall of Fame inductee Sergei Fedorov is the all-time leading scorer among Russians with 483 goals and 696 assists for 1,179 points in 1,248 NHL games. (Photo: Elsa/Getty Images/NHLI)

"Sergei said that to me several times, 'I knew I could trust you, that you would do the best things for my career,'" Murray said. "That's what I tried to do. I brought him into the office often. I talked to him often. He didn't understand everything at the beginning, but as time went on he got pretty good at it. He got to be a real good team guy. He didn't rock the boat. He performed."

Fedorov had 79 points in his rookie season of 1990-91. He had 86 points in his second season and 87 in his third. By his fourth season, he was established, comfortable and dominant. He had 120 points, second behind Gretzky, to become the first player born and trained in Europe to win the Hart Trophy. He also won the Selke Trophy and the Ted Lindsay Award.

"He was strong everywhere," said Stars GM Jim Nill, who was Detroit's assistant GM from 1994-2013. "You go back to the old Russian days, when those guys trained year-round with their team … he always won all the awards for conditioning at training camp. He'd go do pullups, rip off 20 at one time, and go, 'OK, what's next?' He was such a great skater and he had that low-center-of-gravity skating stride. He had elite puck skills. He's one of the best players of all-time."

There were times in the mid-'90s when Bowman would move Fedorov back to defenseman if the Red Wings were short because of injuries. Nicklas Lidstrom, a seven-time Norris Trophy winner, said he thinks Fedorov could have won the Norris if he moved to defense full-time.

"He could skate like a defenseman, backwards, and he was so fast," Lidstrom said. "He could move, get back and get pucks. He was still thinking as a forward when he was playing defense, but he could play that position well and he did."

Even late in Fedorov's career, at his last stop, the Washington Capitals, he made a lasting impact.

"He was the best player I've ever played with," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said.

Yes, Lites was right; Fedorov was ready to leave his comfort zone, to head out the door of the Shilo Inn, into the waiting car, to a plane bound for Detroit and a Hall of Fame career.

"We knew exactly the quality of the player we were getting," Lites said. "The biggest fear was the boy changing his mind."


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