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From Red Army to Red, White and Blue, p. 2

Sergei Fedorov and the Capitals are a great match for each other

Wednesday, 07.16.2008 / 1:45 PM / Features
By Mike Vogel  - WashingtonCaps.com Senior Writer
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From Red Army to Red, White and Blue, p. 2
That leadership started to show the day he arrived in Washington. One of the other trades the Caps made on Feb. 26 brought goaltender Cristobal Huet to the District. Adding Huet to a team that already had two veteran netminders in Olie Kolzig and Cristobal Huet made for an untenable goaltending situation. The local media was out in full force within hours after the trade, trying to stir up some controversy.

Fedorov politely put a pin through that trial balloon.

“Olympic teams have three goalies, too,” he observed when asked – before he had suited up for as much as a single practice with his new team – what he thought of the Caps’ unusual three-goaltender arrangement. “World championship teams have three goalies. I’m sure they manage that as well as anything else. It’s not a problem, I don’t think.”

That same day, Fedorov was asked how he would translate the success of playing for three Stanley Cup champions to the Capitals fuzzy-cheeked squad.

“I think in a team sport like hockey there are no small details,” Fedorov noted. “My basic daily routine would include all those small details and hopefully they will help me out on the ice, during the ice time that I am going to spend during the game. That’s how I understand big championships are won. You have to pay attention to details and everything else falls into place.

“I hope I make myself available enough that the younger players would not be hesitant to ask me anything they want to know. I’ll show them anything they want to know and I would treat them the same way if I need to know from them. We’re doing the same thing and we’re in it together. It’s a two-way street and that’s the way I’m going to approach it.”

Just 24 hours earlier, he belonged to another team in another city. Now, he was in Washington, thrust into a leadership role on a young team. Fedorov spent the first 13 years of his career in Detroit where he still makes his home. The first time he was traded, Fedorov was a month shy of his 35th birthday. The trade to Washington was his second. Although he was not surprised the Blue Jackets dealt him, he was surprised to be going to the Capitals.

“It’s been a tough experience, the last 48 hours,” he said. “I’ve tried to move on. It’s an unfortunate part of the business. It’s not easy to move your life to another city and you have new important people who will surround you, new teammates and everything. But it’s the nature of the game. I’ve had plenty of experiences like that; I’ve moved around the world a lot. It will all come down on the ice. This game of hockey will unite us, and hopefully we’ll go from there.”

Within weeks, it was clear that playing with the Capitals and Ovechkin and Semin had rejuvenated Fedorov. He was enjoying the game more than he had in Columbus. He was needed; he was useful and just as importantly, he felt needed and useful. He was getting more ice time and making more of it. On the ice, there was a noticeable spring in his step. Off the ice, there was a perceptible twinkle in his eye.

Coming up through the Russian system as a teenager, Fedorov’s linemates were Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny. He has outlasted both of them in the NHL. Fedorov is the bridge between his generation and a new breed of young Russians in the NHL: Ovechkin, Semin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Nikolai Zherdev.

“Just the excitement of how they love the game and how they celebrate after scoring goals,” responds Fedorov, when asked how the new Russian generation differs from his own. “Obviously everything else is much different. We’re a little bit different generation. We still came out of the Soviet Union system; they came out of Russia. They are much more celebrated people. We are a little bit more reserved people, I think.”

When asked about the generation that preceded himself, Bure and Mogilny, the twinkle returns to Fedorov’s eye.

“Ahh,” he sighs slowly. “It was an unbelievable generation. That generation showed me how to play hockey. [Viktor] Tikhonov, [Sergei] Makarov, [Vladimir] Krutov, [Igor] Larionov, [Slava] Fetisov, [Alexei] Kasatonov, all those guys. They really were perfectionists at what they did. They could play with their eyes closed. I’m glad I was part of that because I think that’s the best hockey there is.

“My favorite gift that I ever got for myself was eight hours of the 1972 [Summit] Series against Canada. That’s the hockey I understand, that’s the hockey I played for some time in the Soviet Union and with the Russian Five in Detroit.

“It’s amazing. You have to be an all-around player and be able to do a lot of different things in order to compete in that direction because you always have the puck. You don’t give it away; you don’t dump it in. You just make perfect plays until you get to the goal line in order to score goals. It’s something in the past, but it’s something I cherish very much.”

With the Russian Five in Detroit, Fedorov played right wing on a line with Slava Kozlov and Igor Larionov. Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov manned the blueline.

During his days with the Wings, Detroit coach Scotty Bowman approached Fedorov with a novel idea.

“One of our defensemen got injured,” recalls Fedorov. “Scotty just called me in his office and asked me, ‘Well Sergei, what do you think? You’ve played a couple games there and here. Would you go on defense?’

“He sold me with the ice time. I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going.’ Because I didn’t play that much up front. Then I was playing 23, 25 minutes a game in back and I was in heaven. It was that easy. And plus I had a good partner, too. It was Larry Murphy and a couple of other guys. It was incredible.

Longtime Red Wings executive Jim Devellano insisted that had Fedorov remained on defense, he would have won a Norris Trophy.

“Let’s not go there,” says Fedorov, flashing his trademark smile when reminded of Devellano’s remark. “Let’s keep it on Jimmy’s account, what he said.”

Fedorov is still an asset on both special teams, and he is still a diligent backchecker. Because of his attention to detail and his attention to defense, teammates are more likely to respond when he speaks up.

During the Caps’ late-season run to the Southeast title, they needed to win virtually every game. After one of those victories, Fedorov was asked if he felt rejuvenated playing with the young Capitals, and what sort of things he did to help his less experienced teammates in such a big game.

“Mentally it’s refreshing,” he said. “I just like to think that we push each other to the edge. The next day will present certain challenges and the next game will present certain challenges. We cannot stop here tonight. We realize what we’ve done; we got two points and that’s all we say right now to each other. The next game will be as big for us as this game tonight.

“In certain situations on the ice in each period we got a little bit away from some things we like to do. I was just automatically saying a couple of things here and there. Nothing major; just a couple of things like, ‘Third guy back,” or ‘Play defensively well.’

“It was quite an exciting time on the bench and obviously we put a lot of emotions into the game, but the game was not over. The last five minutes of the third were going by very, very slow. You have to keep everything in check until the end. On top of it, you have to leave something at the end even after the game in order to look ahead for the next game. You can’t just spend it all and then go flat for a couple days.

“We did all right with that, I think. We’re excited, but it’s a calm excited. Everybody knows the job we have to do. To keep reminding each other about things we have to get done as a team and as a group is a good thing.”

Some observers believe that Semin played some of his best all-around hockey for Washington during Fedorov’s time with the team. So it was natural to wonder whether any of Fedorov’s on-ice wisdom was rubbing off on the coltish young winger.

“I’m certainly not betting on it, or saying that’s my purpose here,” said Fedorov. “But I’m hoping that something rubs off. And certainly as linemates, we talk about quite a few things. But it’s a work in process. It’s not like, ‘I have so much experience and you don’t. You have to do it [my way].’ No.

“I constantly ask him, ‘Hey, where should I pass it to you?’ or ‘Where should I be in certain situations?’ It’s a work in process and I hope something will rub off, but not it’s not just rubbing off on him, that experience rubs off on me, too.

“As linemates, you have to do that. I constantly encourage everybody about stuff like that. You have to speak up and let everybody know – your teammate or your linemate – how you feel in certain situations. That’s what brings – at the edgiest and toughest moments – the best out of both of us, or three of us or four of us. You know what I’m saying? Everybody knows each other’s moves. After that it’s a no-brainer.”

There were many nights in March and April of this year when Fedorov cavorted over the ice surface like a much younger man. He averaged 21:38 in ice time per game during the playoffs, second only to Ovechkin among the team’s forwards. To those of us watching from high above, it seemed as though Fedorov had, on occasion, found a sort of fountain of youth.

“I like to say I feel that way,” Fedorov said politely, just before the start of the playoffs. “But I’m not 25 or 26. I’m also feeling I’m 38. I’m as excited as anybody here after what we’ve accomplished, but we have new levels to work at. I’m as excited as anybody in this locker room or in the city or management. I haven’t played playoff hockey in a while. You forget things after a while.

“I’m going to be nervous before games and obviously it’s going to be a nerve-wracking experience. Hopefully we’ll overcome our nerves and just play hard and play like we did in the last few games. It’s exciting. Just an exciting, fun time.”

Alas, the exciting, fun playoff run lasted but one series. But now Fedorov has signed on for another season in Washington, another kick at the Cup. There were offers to return to Russia and play in his native country for the first time in nearly two decades. He likely could have landed an NHL deal with another team. But Fedorov so enjoyed his stay in Washington that he wanted to extend it. And the Caps so enjoyed having him here in the District that they wanted him back.

“He’s a good player, just about as smart as they come,” said McPhee. “He was a terrific leader here last year. He was pretty firm on what he wanted and what his value was. He’s been a great player in this league so we showed him respect and we made it work.”

What can we expect from him in 2008-09? Fedorov is not the player he once was, but he’s a better leader than he’s ever been. Experience has helped replace what time has taken from him, but he’s still Sergei Fedorov. He is still a commanding presence on the ice and in the room. He still has that certain panache that is usually reserved for rock stars. Expectations will high, but his own expectations are as well.

“They’ve always been high,” he says. “Sometimes you over-expect and overdo certain things. You think you’re still 20. I’m 38 but I have high expectations of myself. I try to do anything possible to fulfill them.

“I’m not going to talk about what they are and how they are, but I know one thing. You have to have high expectations of yourself in order to stay in the game. There’s always a 22- or 23-year-old ready to knock you on your butt at any time of the game. So you better be ready for that.”

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