A Mighty Winner
Sergei Fedorov means many things to many Mighty Duck players. Each sees a perk to having the multitalented center in Anaheim.
“Maybe all those [Detroit Red Wing] fans that come to our games will root for us now,” Duck goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere said, smiling.
OK, more fans.
“I can go to him and ask questions,” 21-year-old Alexei Smirnov said.
OK, savvy mentor.
“He’s a world-class player,” team captain Steve Rucchin said. “You can never have enough of those guys on your team.”
OK, exceptional player.
What this all means to Fedorov is: all of the above.
So what this could mean for the Duck organization is a big payoff -- on the ice, in the dressing room and at the box office, not to mention in public opinion, where Fedorov’s signing more than counter-balanced Paul Kariya’s departure when he was allowed to become a free agent.
Fedorov, in his prime at 33, exchanged drab and dingy Detroit for the surf and sun of Southern California, signing a five-year, $40-million contract. He was lured by his friendship with Duck General Manager Bryan Murray, who was his first coach in Detroit. What sealed the deal were some big bucks and a not-so-small change.
“I was looking forward to a new challenge,” Fedorov said. “Hopefully I will become a two-goal guy. I want to be involved in every situation, the penalty kill, the power play, five on five, key faceoffs.
“I think I had that with my former club, [but] only when there was nowhere else to go. Then they remembered I was on the team.”
Fedorov stopped talking, looked around the dressing room of his new team and said: “I like the logo. I like the smirk on that Duck. That’s a pretty tough-looking Duck.”
Huddled in the corner of the dressing room after the Ducks’ 3-1 loss to Nashville on Thursday were Smirnov and Stanislav Chistov, who were giving apostle-like attention to everything Fedorov was saying.
That Smirnov soaks up everything Fedorov has to offer is not surprising. That Chistov sits next to Fedorov in the Duck dressing is not luck.
“I was in Russia this summer and I heard rumors that Sergei was going to be a Duck,” Chistov said. “When [Coach] Mike Babcock called me and said Sergei was coming, I was excited. This was the guy you followed growing up in Russia.”
The excitement ran through every player on the team.
There was relief.
“I don’t have to chase him around the ice any more,” Rucchin said.
There was eagerness.
“How can you not like playing with a guy like Sergei Fedorov?” winger Petr Sykora said.
This was a marquee signing unlike any the Ducks had ever made. The Kings, 22 miles up the road, were among those who noticed.
“You don’t go and spend $40 million on a player when you know the economics are going to change [in the NHL],” King President Tim Leiweke said on a television talk show recently.
Leiweke also said the Kings already have a star player in Ziggy Palffy. Asked whom he would rather have, Leiweke said, “I know what we’re going to get out of Ziggy every night.”
Fedorov scoffs at the notion that he is moody or doesn’t always put forth an effort. But he did disappear during the Red Wings’ first-round playoff series against the Ducks. He attributes that to a diminished role in the series.
“He’s got an exceptional work ethic,” Rucchin said. “You got a guy who is your best player with your strong work ethic, that is only going to help rub off on everybody else.”
Fedorov brings Hall of Fame credentials, with 400 goals and 954 points. He was chosen the NHL’s best skater this year by one publication. He also brings high expectations, a heavy load for a guy making his first big move in the NHL.
“He’s never been on a different team,” Detroit forward Brendan Shanahan said. “He’s never lived anywhere other than Detroit in the NHL. ... It will take some time before he gets comfortable.”
Said Fedorov: “I moved from Russia to Detroit. This isn’t as big a move.”
Fedorov stepped out of a car, with a TSN film crew in tow. The Canadian sports channel was doing a story on Fedorov’s move to Southern California and followed him everywhere for days.
On this stop in Los Angeles, Fedorov was asked to do a quick stand-up intro, just a few words, “I’m Sergei Fedorov and welcome to Hollywood.”
Fedorov politely declined.
This is the image he is hoping to avoid.
Southern California was certainly appealing. Fedorov bought a home at the beach and his convertible, which resembles the Batmobile -- jet black with red trim -- fits a rich-and-famous lifestyle.
But Fedorov insists that he winged his way west to be a Duck, not a night owl.
“I am here to play hockey,” Fedorov said. “I am not that naive. All that good stuff, the great reception, the great publicity, I’m not fooled by that. I know how hard I have to work.... Hey, I know what I can control and what I can’t, and that’s the bottom line.”
What Fedorov could control this summer was his future. He said he knew Detroit was in his rearview mirror long before he was officially a free agent.
“I told a friend of mine three or four months before July 1 that I was not going to sign with Detroit,” Fedorov said. “I didn’t believe I could have signed in Detroit just because of a weird feeling I had.”
Just where Fedorov would sign was the question. With a resume that includes a Hart Trophy awarded to the league’s most valuable player and two Selke trophies for best defensive forward, plus those three Stanley Cup championships, Fedorov was the blue-chip free agent of the summer.
That Murray was the Ducks’ general manager gave them an edge in landing Fedorov. The two have been close since the day Fedorov slipped out of a hotel in Portland, Ore., and onto a private jet to defect from the Soviet Union in 1990.
“People like to exaggerate about our relationship, but in the end it was deeper than probably we both thought,” Fedorov said.
Yet, it took more than being pals.
The Ducks were fresh from reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, sweeping the Red Wings in the first round as a springboard. That made Anaheim attractive beyond the golf-friendly winter weather. Then Murray gambled and lost by not giving Kariya a qualifying offer.
Kariya bolted to Colorado as a free agent. Murray was left with $10 million to play with in the budget.
Fedorov signed. The star-heavy Red Wings seemed to have merely shrugged.
“I can’t say we were totally shocked,” Shanahan said. “I think when he didn’t sign the first week of free agency, we got our hopes up that he would possibly be coming back to Detroit. I just had a sense that he was interested in change. Everyone is entitled to that.
“He obviously made a big one in order to get to the NHL. Somebody that’s willing to defect from their country will be willing to sign as a free agent.”
There is always a possibility of a media circus around Fedorov, whose personal life has been probed with National Enquirer zeal.
“What can I say, people are interested in my persona, maybe?” he said. “Or maybe they just try to stir the pot.”
Fedorov’s life, whether he likes it or not, leans heavily on the drama, luring interest in things beyond his play on the ice.
There was his stealth defection from the Soviet Union, making him one of the first high-profile Russians to come to the NHL. There was his now-defunct marriage to tennis-playing bombshell Anna Kournikova, which provided plenty of fodder for even non-sports publications.
That Fedorov tells all reporters now, “Ask me anything you want,” is a sign that he has already been asked everything.
“He creates great interest,” Murray said. “A player like Sergei has such an impact because of his entertainment value.”
With Fedorov, though, that can be “Entertainment Tonight” value as well.
The Kournikova relationship brought non-sports media into the Red Wings’ dressing room. The divorce was just one more distraction in a season filled with them. Fedorov was changing agents, and contract negotiations dragged on.
Fedorov said he and Kournikova have not spoken in almost a year. But there is no going back in status. Fedorov has been reclassified from athlete to celebrity.
Duck players have lived an anonymous life away from the rink. Even Kariya could go out in public with little chance of being recognized.
Fedorov laughed at this, shook his head and said, “It doesn’t work for me like that. It’s not like Detroit, but I go to dinner and people wave to me and ask me for my autograph. It’s nice. Maybe I have moved to Hockeytown.”