The Star Comes Out to Play

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Wayne Gretzky once said the biggest tragedy confronting a pro athlete was to reach your mental peak long after your physical peak.

"That's right," agreed Sergei Fedorov, 38 years old this past December. As a young player, "You don't enjoy it as much. You don't understand. You don't know what creates that positive wave."

Skate, shoot and "keep it simple, stupid," he said, almost proud that a kid of 20, who defected from his Russian homeland in 1990, could now use an American colloquialism to explain himself.

Old and new fans of the Washington Capitals will unleash a throaty roar in the franchise's first playoff game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Verizon Center on Friday night. Much of their emotion will understandably be focused on Alex Ovechkin -- his blinding speed, his ability to create angles and possibilities no other player imagines, and a grit belying his supernova status.

But in essence they will be watching the Sergei Fedorov of the new millennium, hockey's new Russian golden boy whose panache and power the NHL is already banking on. Just as Fedorov used to.

"Alex has it easier; you can already see he understands the process better than me when I was that age," Fedorov said of his 22-year-old teammate.

The first and only Russian-born player to win the Hart Trophy, the league's most valuable player award, spoke after his teammates had left practice on Monday. Ovechkin will presumably become the second winner of the award after scoring 65 goals and leading the Capitals from the cellar of the Eastern Conference to the Southeast Division title.

There are four Russians on Washington's team, the most of any current NHL club. They speak Russian together and have gone out and eaten together, Ovechkin, Viktor Kozlov and Alexander Semin helping their countryman adjust to new surroundings. "The Russian Four," Fedorov is told.

"Yes, but the Russian Four is not the Russian Five," he said. "We help each other, but we don't play on the same line all the time. But thank you for remembering."

It is hard to forget Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov, Vyacheslav Fetisov and Igor Larianov skating together as a unit with the Detroit Red Wings -- Konstantinov and Fetisov on defense, and Fedorov, Larianov and Koslov at forward.

They helped the Red Wings capture the Stanley Cup in 1997 -- Hockeytown, USA's first since 1955. But six days after they hoisted the Cup, a limousine carrying Konstantinov, Fetisov and Detroit equipment trainer Sergei Mnatsakanov crashed into a tree. Fetisov escaped with minor rib injuries, but Mnatsakanov and Konstantinov both suffered massive head injuries.

They were at MCI Center the following year. Konstantinov watched in a wheelchair as Fedorov and the Red Wings won their second straight Stanley Cup, defeating the Capitals in four games. Konstantinov was wheeled down to the ice afterward for the celebration.

"Scotty Bowman's speech before the last game we play was, 'Guys, I don't know much to say about hockey but one thing I like to say is I'd trade all my rings for this win tonight, and let's do it for Vladi,' " Fedorov said. "That was most incredible moment in my career in how humanly and great Coach was."

Today, Konstantinov is cared for in Detroit and Fedorov occasionally visits him.

"I always kid around and ask him, 'What's my name?' And he says, 'Sergei.' And I'm, like: 'Okay, Vlad. It's cool. Nice to see you.' He can communicate with you. It's just sad after many years playing and knowing the guy that he is in worse shape than you."

Fedorov's face still has a smooth, oiled sheen to it. His complexion is devoid of blemish, save a few creases in his forehead and beneath his eyes. His locks are still dishwater blond, flowing behind his helmet like a spoiler on a souped-up racer. And on nights like Saturday, when his stellar play put the Caps in the playoffs on the last night of the regular season, it is easy to mistake the 38-year-old veteran for a 20-something wunderkind, full of an adrenaline he has not felt in the four years he failed to make the playoffs with Anaheim and Columbus, who traded him to the Capitals in February.

"It was a good break," Fedorov said. "No, I feel like I'm back for first time. I feel fresh. I love that feeling. A lot of guys haven't played or had a chance to play in playoffs. They excited as hell and obviously you feel that energy.

"It's been taken away from me last four or five years. It wasn't easy. Whatever teams I play with, it didn't happen -- even though it was most natural thing for me. People think, 'Ah, maybe you get some rest.' But it's not true. You feel like you should be playing every year."

When he won the Hart Trophy in 1994, the Red Wings had become a high-scoring, fuel-injected annual playoff dud.

Bowman, a spare and fussy man with a steel plate in his head from his playing days, was a taskmaster brought in as coach to teach them a more rugged style of play suitable for the postseason. Fedorov at the time had highlighted blond locks, outlandish sunglasses and canoodled with tennis star Anna Kournikova, a woman 12 years his junior, whom he actually wed in 2001 and divorced in 2003.

"For this side of the ocean, it's a little bit different," Fedorov said of his relationship with Kournikova. "For the other side it was perfectly normal. Most people don't know when we start dating. It was appropriate time, but media speculated."

He doesn't speak to Kournikova often anymore, maybe once or twice a year. "Life goes on," he said. "You learn. It's a learning experience and you move on."

At a time when Russians were portrayed as just pretty skaters and skillful passers, Fedorov and Bowman seemed on a collision course of egos. But just the opposite happened. The new-school player took to Bowman's old-fangled ways, embracing them more than any of his teammates. Fedorov became a tremendous defensive forward en route to Detroit's three Stanley Cups, actually winning two Selke Trophy awards, which goes to the NHL's top defensive forward.

In the 1990s, Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux were the only players to score more playoff points than Fedorov's 134. In the postseason alone, Fedorov scored more than 20 points during each of four straight playoff runs by the Red Wings, a feat accomplished in NHL history by just Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier with the New York Islanders.

He is physically diminished today, but still so economical with the puck and on each end-to-end skate. There is no wasted movement. The understanding of the game and life has grown for Fedorov.

He is less Ovechkin's mentor than his admirer. "He's the gamebreaker this time around," Fedorov said. "To be part of it, it is very rejuvenating. I bring energy, good sense. They use me a lot. And I just try to repay back everything they gave me."

Everyone talks about what Sergei Fedorov has brought to Washington; what they don't know is how much the Capitals have given Fedorov -- a new lease on an old champion's life.

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