Nostalgia: Detroit's Russian Rocket

It is no secret that I adore Russian players. From my unbridled love of Datsyuk now to my love of all things Sergei Samsonov and my admiration of what we lost in Vladimir Konstantinov, Russian players are my favorite nationality of hockey. One, in particular, stands out above the rest, however.

In the past, I have proclaimed I would fight you to the death defending Sergei Fedorov as the best Red Wings player of all time. This is no joke nor exaggeration; he simply is the most talented player to ever play for the Red Wings. Maybe not the greatest, but in terms of raw talent, I truly believe that no Wing can match Fedorov. With that, let's go back in my memory and re-live the greatness of Sergei Fedorov.

The first time I encountered Fedorov was that same day I got caught hiding behind a couch watching a hockey game. My grandpa had picked me up and taken me into the room and we sat down to watch the game together. This was the year he won the Hart Trophy and he was a sight to behold. He was the fastest player in the league with the best stick handling and some of the best defense. He was the entire package.

The Russian Rocket was a blur. When I saw him play, it was as if nothing else in the world existed. I remember my grandpa, in his infinite wisdom, telling me about the greatness of Steve Yzerman and how "there will never be a better player in your lifetime, Josh." I respectfully disagree; there was a better player in that very game.

Fedorov was simply the best. He won the Fastest Skater Superskills competition in 1992 and 1994. To this day, only the great Michael Gartner has done it faster than the Russian Rocket. Despite only winning it twice (it should be noted that no player has won it more than that), Fedorov was much, much faster, especially with a puck. His slapshot routinely hit high 90's and even triple digits, and while he wasn't Zdeno Chara, he did win one of the Slapshot competitions. But his crowning jewel was his two-way play. In today's game, Fedorov's skill as a defensive forward would put him above any of his competition, even Pavel Datsyuk, Martin St. Louis, and Ryan Kesler.

In 1997, he helped the Wings win their first Stanley Cup in half a century. He put up 8 goals and 12 assists in the 20 games it took us to win the cup that year. I remember the feeling of joy as I stayed up past my bedtime to watch us win Game 4 against the Flyers. Even after McCarty scored the brilliant Cup winner, I was chanting "Fedorov, Fedorov, Fedorov." As with many kids that are 7 or 8 years old, my hero was an athlete.

Unfortunately, there was also a cause of sadness that summer. As I mentioned in my Nostalgia post about the Russian Five, the accident after we won that Cup was awful for me. My mom told me that there had been a limo accident and that it was full of Russian Red Wings. She wasn't sure if Fedorov was in the car or not. I felt dread as I watched the morning news that day, hoping that it was not Fedorov. At that point, I didn't really care who the others were - just not Fedorov. Selfish, sure, but that was my love of Fedorov. I have never been as relieved as I was when I learned he was not in the car.

Around that time, I started amassing an army of Red Wings collectibles, much of them centered around Fedorov. I had two posters hanging in my room after we won the Cup in 1997, just two. They were both Fedorov. One was a full body shot of him, a Nike poster. I thought it was so cool because it said "SEЯGEI FEDOЯOV," backwards R and all. The other was a dual headshot of Larionov and Fedorov with the tagline "THE PROFESSOR AND HIS ROCKET." Looking back, it is a very corny tag line, but at eight years old it was the coolest thing I owned.

That season, we almost lost Fedorov. I remember sitting in the family room of our house watching the press conference of the Wings announcing they were matching Fedorov's offer sheet with the Hurricanes after a lengthy hold out. The room was dark with just the light above the kitchen sink on, snow was falling, and I sat there in stunned silence as I realized he could have left. After the press conference, the backlash against him began. He ended up making $28 million that season for 43 games, more than any player in NHL history. This, along with trying to leave Detroit, made people hate him.

Despite this, Fedorov helped lead the team to their second straight Stanley Cup that year. It was a joyous event as Yzerman skated over to Vladimir Konstantinov, who had been wheeled onto the ice in his wheel chair, and gave Konstantinov the honor of being the second to hold the Cup.

That summer was the best off-season of my life. Shortly after winning, the Cup appeared at either Oakland Mall. My grandparents took me to see it and we waited in line for hours to get my picture taken with it. I was excited not only by the Cup but by the idea that Fedorov could be there. Even though he was not, It was a grand moment being with the Cup and I wish I still had the photo somewhere.

Russianfive_medium

Later that summer, I went to my uncle's house for a family get-together. My uncle is a retired GM accountant from the golden days and lives in a gated community on a lake; I used to love going there just for his huge, three story house. The most interesting thing about this trip, though, was that Fedorov also had a house on that lake and while we were out on my uncle's pontoon, we ran into the Russian Rocket on his own boat. I managed to shake his hand that day and, being completely dumbfounded, I was only able to stare at my idol. (sidenote: I didn't really pay attention, I was only 8, but I'm thinking Anna Kournikova was the girl on the boat)

Over the next few years, I continued to watch Fedorov and the Wings play. Every December, I begged my parents to get me a Fedorov jersey and every year I was thwarted in the attempt. After the ’98 Cup run, Scotty experimented with Fedorov playing defense, pairing him with Larry Murphy. In the words of Jim Devellano, "I’m convinced if we left him there, he’d have won a Norris Trophy."

There really aren’t many other memories until the 2002 Cup run with one of the greatest teams to ever be assembled, and even then it is just of us winning the Cup the excellence of both Hasek and Hull and everyone else on that team.

Fedorov only played one more season with the Wings after that third Cup. In 2003, he signed with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. He rejected multiple contracts from the Wings, most of them being $10 million per year. His main reasoning, I remember, was playtime; he wanted more, and on a stacked team like the Wings consistently had, it was difficult to give him more. So he went to Anaheim for a few seconds more a game and his play drastically fell off.

Fedorov was traded to the Blue Jackets in 2005 and played 185 games for Columbus before being put back on the block in 2008. Around this time, I was an active commenter on FanHouse’s NHL blog and every chance I got, I was asking if it would be possible for Fedorov to return to the Wings. At one point, it actually felt likely. Unfortunately, Columbus traded him to Washington where he played out the rest of his NHL career.

The last memory I have of him now is of the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He skated for Russia, wearing an appalling #29, no less, and getting destroyed by Canada 7-3.

Sergei Fedorov was and still is my all-time favorite athlete. Even after the legacy tarnishing departures for Carolina and Anaheim, I still love him. And yes, he is by far the most talented Wing I have ever seen play.

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