The Star Comes Out to Play
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.