In this interview originally taken on the popular Russian radio station Radio FM, Sergei Fedorov, now GM of the CSKA Moscow of the KHL, talked about the Russian Five, discussed his trades, and shed some light on the Red Wings golden era.
– You left Russia in 1990. Weren’t you scared about leaving? Another country, different people, a different language. Did you have any problem?
– I didn’t have such deep thoughts. I was only 20 and I didn’t understand much. I simply wanted to play and live well. I can explain it now like that. Eleven months of the year for four years I spent at the baza… it became hard once I realized that I already won twice the IIHF World Championships, and four times the USSR Championship. Even if the first two years I was very young. But I still had to spend all this time at the baza. This started having a huge role on myself and I started thinking about it. I understood that at CSKA, in Moscow, it would have been hard for me. I grew tired of the baza: 11 months every year! Can you imagine what it means? It’s like you live there. Well, the conditions were top notch, but still… Living there serving for the Army, with almost no salary. Plus I’ve got that opportunity. I received a couple of letters from the team’s president and vice president. They described me the way players live and play. They explained to me how many people, usually around 20000, attended games. Of course I was very impressed and this is why I decided to take such decision.
– What about the different language?
– I didn’t even imagine that they talk another language there.
– Alexei Zhamnov was the last person seeing you before your departure to North America. He told us many interesting stories about it. But did you talk with anyone else about leaving the country? Maybe with your parents?
– No, I talked about it with some of my friends. I did not talk about it with my parents and team mates. I understood that everything could be simply unreal, but then it happened.
– Wasn’t it scary?
– You know, I was accepted in such a way that all the fear vanished right after. I was a bit worried when I flew from Portland, Oregon to Detroit.
– How did the team greet you?
– Well, I saw the team only in September. I got there at the end of July. I skated with the guys and they took me under their patronage. Good guys they were. They understood my situation and they accepted me without a single problem. I was already in good shape, and they were just starting. I had 2-3 months of serious practices, I had no fats, just muscles. Then I hit the ice and they were stunned by my speed. I was already in shape for the new season, they were just starting. But they all were happy.
– Many Russian guys say that they are forced to learn to play in a different way. Did the coaches ask you anything special?
– Frankly speaking, I don’t remember such a thing. I played the way I could play. I was a center and I knew how to play defense and offense. Back in the Soviet Union I was playing with great defensemen. This is why there were no problems. No one forced me to do anything. In my first year I scored more than 30 goals, if that means something.
– Yes, it does. But let’s go on, Scotty Bowman played you both on the blue line and on the right wing.
– It was many years later. We had many injuries on defense, the last injury occurring to Chris Chelios. Late in the season with a few regular season games remaining he said: “Ok, play a couple of games on defense”. I was happy about it, because I knew that I would play more than 20 minutes a game. When I played as forward, I didn’t completely understand Mr. Bowman. We were rolling four lines, and I didn’t understand that he was simply trying to keep us fresh for the playoffs. We, the players, often don’t think about the whole strategy. I was happy to play defense. Moreover, my partner was Larry Murphy. Maybe he wasn’t the fastest defenseman out there, but he was indeed a great player. We complemented each other very well, and we almost didn’t play in our zone. We almost didn’t defend. We were either playing the puck or joining the rush.
– Did you have any problem adapting to the smaller ice surface?
– Well I skated there for a month and half. But the game is completely different. I adapted quite fast.
– Are there other things required?
– Yes, of course, [on the smaller ice surface] it’s much more intense. At first I stumbled upon players while bringing the puck forward. Then I started shorting my sticks. My first sticks were built for bigger rinks. Then I started using smaller sticks, with a shorter shaft and curve. The puck was running too fast and I couldn’t afford so many turnovers.
– Did someone else suggest you to change your stick?
– No, I understood it myself.
– Could you understand people at the meetings?
– At first it was hard. During the practices I just watched the ones who made the drills before me. Six, seven months passed and was already understand pretty much everything. I had no choice. I had English language all around me, and I learned fast. I started talking quite freely after the first season.
– You said that you had a lot of free time. You also said that some players, who moved overseas after you, couldn’t get used to it. It could be because they were alone. Did you experience anything similar? Before moving overseas you were spending 11 months a year at the baza, then you move and after the practice you’re free to do whatever you want.
– I adapted fast to my newfound freedom. I understood that you need to use that freedom to your advantage. The conditions were great. I was living very close to the arena, I could walk there. With more freedom, I started freeing my mind from hockey once the practice was done. I could focus myself more on the game, actually. After four years at CSKA, after all that physical practice, I started thinking less about hockey once it was done. I thought many times about my departure. There were some things I liked, and I didn’t like some other things. But I remember that that freedom helped me a lot. You’re a professional, you’re responsible for yourself, for your body, for your work out. I liked it, it was very positive.
– Did you pay attention to what was happening in Russia? You left right after Mogilny.
– Well, I think for me it has been easier. I simply understood that I needed something new for my development.
– You were the first European player to win the Hart Trophy. Were you more satisfied about it?
– Of course it has been great. Frankly speaking, I didn’t quite realize that I was the first European player to get it. It was a great season that passed very fast. I remember playing about 28-30 minutes a night. I remember that I was running so fast that all around me was still.
– That season Yzerman was injured.
– Yes, unfortunately Steve picked up an injury. But I had a chance to play much more, even 10-12 minutes more. I played on two lines and got all the awards, not only the Hart. When you play that much, you get the rythm and it’s like you’re flying and your environment around you is still. I didn’t feel anything similar, it was a completely new experience for me. I thought it would have been hard for me after 30 games, but I played 82. I wanted more. This is why the more I played, the better I played and the more I scored goals and assists. If it wasn’t for my team mate, who knocked me out for three games… I was competing with Gretzky, point on point. And I pick up a concussion… He gave me 10 points, I finished at 120, and [Gretzky] at 130.
– 56 goals.
– Yes, 56. All in one breath.
– Was your position in the scoring race important to you?
– Well, it was interesting to understand where were you if compared with the other stars of the league. At CSKA I learned that the center is the most important player of the team, who needs to be everywhere, both on offense and on defense. I crossed the ocean as a player who thinks more to the team, than to himself. When they give me the chance to score, I simply wanted to score every game without stopping. And I didn’t stop.
– Did you learn many new things playing under Bowman?
– Of course, I learned a lot of new things. But working with him wasn’t easy and I’m not the only one who says that. It was complicated. He didn’t like the silence, he wanted that was always something that forced us to be on our toes. I can’t say that no one loved him, but we didn’t feel many positive emotions. Within the team there was a huge concurrency. Everyone wanted to play. And we had such a great team for many straight years. But at the end of my career I really didn’t expect to see such a different person. When he retired as a coach, he came to Detroit, to our locker room. And talking with him has been awesome. No one expected that he could be such a person. He surprised us all. It appeared that under his gross and sometimes inappropriate actions, phrases, words was hiding a kind, gentle, good-hearted man, a mentor with a capital letter.
– Your first Stanley Cup final wasn’t probably what you wanted it to be. Not only you lost to the New Jersey Devils, but you were swept. What were your feelings?
– It was hard to swallow. Even if we lost the first two games, I thought that we had everything we needed to win. But it didn’t happen. It was very strange because we had a great team.
– What do you think it happened?
– I didn’t think that they were better than us. They played in ther usual conservative style. They had a great goalie in Martin Brodeur. I think I played well in those series. I scored every game. But, unfortunately, our team game wasn’t the best. Maybe we lacked some depth in offense or defense. Our opponents were very experienced and intimidating. They were like one of those cars, who don’t go fast, but don’t go slow either and won’t stop if it encountered any obstacle on its way. We simply couldn’t catch them. That said, I felt like I was delivering, I was playing well.
– And then there was the Russian Five.
– I didn’t know that they were creating the Russian Five. I never played like that, not before, nor after that period. I also had a chance to play with my idols, like Igor Larionov, or Slava Fetisov…
– Within the Russian Five, you were playing right wing.
– Well, with Igor Larionov we weren’t really splitting right wing and center. Of course playing on the wing was easier to me. I knew that Igor would give me great passes. And I helped him on defense. Regarding the Russian Five, we didn’t even realize what was happening. Simply the manager asked me if it was worth it to bring Igor and Slava [Kozlov]. And I said, of course, we shold take them. The secret of the Russian Five was that we could play a lot together for a long time, even if we lost during the playoffs. But five players can’t make a team win the Stanley Cup. You need four good lines. And we needed a few years.
– What were your feelings after the first Stanley Cup?
– Frankly speaking, I was very tired. I was dehydrated. I had a bottle of water, I got stirred up a bit. Of course, when you lift that heavy throphy over your head and hear 20,000 people making noise for you, that gives you some additional forces. I remember that I gave an interview after the game, but I didn’t have enough voice for it. Not because I yelled a lot, simply my mouth was dry. Of course, when we got to the locker room to celebrate, our masseurs and coaches gave us some water and we were ourselves again. And champagne made it better.
– After the Red Wings, the move to Anaheim.
– It was a normal transfer. I couldn’t agree to a new contract. I gave 13 years to the Red Wings and I remember that getting to California was the hardest road trip. In my soul I was really hoping to stay in Detroit and keep on winning, but it didn’t happen. Sport is sport, and business is business.
– After the Ducks, Columbus.
– I moved to Columbus because of Brian Burke. Somewhat he stopped my brother from having a normal professional career. When I was in Detroit, I gave Brian many unpleasant moments. I always played well against the Canucks. Maybe he got angry and reacted on Fedor. My brother was playing well, both in the AHL, and in the NHL. Once he got to Anaheim that manager told me that he wasn’t going to trade me. And then he traded me…
– Didn’t you have a no-trade clause?
– No, I didn’t ask for one and I didn’t think about it. It happened that Burke promised me and my agent that he won’t trade me, but he did. But in Columbus I had Doug MacLean and Gerard Gallant, therefore I was felling myself at home. It was great there. Then we got Hitchcock, who is a great coach and is very good in developing young players, but he doesn’t gel well with veterans, therefore he decided to trade me to Washington.
– When your contract run out there were many rumors that you wanted a lot of money. The same Washington franchise said so.
– This was just journalists speculating. No one in Washington can say such a thing. Not a single official person. I wanted an one-year deal with the same conditions as the year before. Or they could offer me what they felt appropriate. Unfortunately they already had a lot of players on one-way contracts. Simply there wasn’t place for me, therefore they decided not to renew my contract. I wanted to play there another year or two, but it didn’t happen. Then I got a great offer from Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL and I was happy to accept it. I was in debt, and I could return back home to Russia.
– Where do you keep your Stanley Cup championship rings?
– They are in a secret zone. But they are here, in Russia.
– Do you wear them?
– The last time it was a couple of years ago at some ceremony. It was great wearing them and talking with people about how it was winning them…
– Sergei Nemchinov said that he wears them during the playoffs.
– You know, I tried myself a couple of times. But it didn’t help…
Read also: Where is Slava Kozlov now?
A professional hockey writer and translator. Loves Russian culture, language, and hockey. Reachable on twitter @AlexSerenRosso