By Mitch Albom
The issue is not whether Sergei Fedorov is a superlative player. It's which superlative do you use?
Depending on whom you listen to, he's either the most talented man on the Red Wings, or the least interested. He's the fastest on the ice, or the fastest to disappear from it. He's the most misused, or the most misunderstood. Rarely at this furious time of year, the conference finals, can the image of one player be so up in the air.
To hear Sergei tell it, the reason is simple.
"If my name were Sam Jones, I would be a superstar here forever," he says.
"People judge me differently because I am Russian."
Perhaps he has a point. American fans do have sports-hero standards: thrill over victory, agonize over defeat, drop buckets of sweat, leave it all on the ice, give 110 percent. . . .
Fedorov doesn't see the game that way. Why should he? He was raised in a different country, taught in a different system. His training is that you play smart, not stupid. You expend energy to help your team win, not to impress somebody in the third row.
"Sometimes, when the game gets very clutchy," he says, pushing his long blond hair back off his forehead, "I say to myself, how can I most help team here? Maybe not to get clutchy. Maybe wait until the moment when you can accelerate like a red hot, like steel at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit."
Which may explain why you watch a game and barely notice Fedorov -- and then boom! He comes flying down the ice like a thief leaving a bank -- the way he did Monday night in Game 3 against Colorado, spinning backward, losing a defender, making a backhanded dish for an assist on a goal.
At times like that, you say, "This guy is phenomenal!"
You also say, "We want more of that."
Which is where the trouble begins.
Sergei vs. Scotty
There are a number of reasons for the affliction known as "Fedorov Frustration." Most are not his fault. For one thing, you, the fan, are not the only party who knows of No. 91's skills. The other team does as well.
"I think Sergei is the best player on the team," defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov says. "He can carry the puck into the zone, he can score, he can pass, he can do anything he wants on the ice."
Hey. He's just described Michael Jordan. When I ask why Fedorov doesn't have Jordan numbers -- Konstantinov smiles.
"If every time Michael Jordan comes down court, they hold his arms, maybe he wouldn't do what he does, either."
So there's that, OK? Defenders often wrap Fedorov like a tortilla. Then there's point No. 2. Fedorov can't work his magic on the bench. He needs ice time -- which is not always plentiful, not on a team with so many offensive stars. For this, you look to coach Scotty Bowman -- the master of head games
-- who pretty much knocked Fedorov's head off his shoulders when he made him a defenseman earlier this season.
Although he publicly took the move in stride, privately, Fedorov was dizzy with doubt and anger. What had become of him, the league MVP three years ago? The man who had scored 56 goals? He was now a defenseman?
He swallowed his words. He knew a confrontation would not help. But he did ask Bowman, "What do I have to do to get more ice time?"
The answer, at least to Fedorov, was unclear. But answers often are with Bowman.
"Would you play better if you communicated more easily with your coach?" I ask.
Fedorov rolls his eyes. "Let me say it this way. It wouldn't hurt me, OK?"
Wait. There's more.
Sergei vs. the world
Fedorov -- who says, "I like Detroit, this is where I begin my American hockey, this is where I want to finish" -- is a free agent when these playoffs end. The next two weeks could strongly determine his future.
He's in an unusual situation. On the one hand, he has more raw speed, agility and youth than two of his elder teammates, Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan. And the Wings want Sergei to use every inch of his talent.
On the other hand, they don't want to pay him more than Shanahan or Yzerman. So what's he supposed to think? Should he stay and get in line? Should he go some place where he is the leader in skill and in minutes?
"This year has been the toughest of my career," he says, shrugging. Funny word, tough. People say Russian players aren't tough enough. Fedorov says,
"They are tougher." You try learning a new country, a new language, a new culture, and still play hockey well.
Instead, Fedorov is surrounded by reporters who ask about his critics. Here is a guy who has eight points in his last five games -- and they ask about his critics? They say he takes too long to get going. They say he's not emotional enough about the game.
"That's because I am like Mohican," he says.
"From the book, 'Last Of The Mohicans.' I read this in school. The warrior at the end, he has face like stone. Only later, when he thinks people aren't looking, then he lets it out.
"I feel like that sometimes here."
So who knows? Maybe he's the last of the Russian Mohicans. You watch Sergei Fedorov and you hold your breath. He's got talent, moves, flashes of brilliance. Is he right? If his name were Sam Jones, would he really be judged
Hard to say. Then again, if he keeps playing this way -- and helps lead the Wings to a Stanley Cup -- he'll have written his own ticket. And he can call himself anything he wants.
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