Sergei Fedorov is on the phone from halfway around the world, and he is laughing. Mostly because there’s no simple answer to the question the former Red Wings star is being asked. What would the hockey executive he is today tell the player he was 20 or 30 years ago?
“Oh, a lot of things,” Fedorov finally sighs, a few months shy of his 50th birthday and now a married father of two young children, both of whom are chattering away in the background at home in Moscow.
But “history is history,” Fedorov notes, and besides, the thing that was true then – way back when Fedorov defected from the Soviet Union in 1990 to begin a Hall of Fame career in Detroit – is just as true now.
“Love what you do, give everything you’ve got,” he says, “and the rest takes care of itself.”
And so it is, he figures, that things have come full-circle in his adopted hometown of Detroit, where his former teammate and captain, Steve Yzerman, is beginning his first season as general manager of the Red Wings.
“He’s back where he belongs,” Fedorov said. “Everybody knows that.”
And Fedorov, in his own way, knows about the pressure that goes along with such a move, having returned home to Russia a decade ago to finish his playing career before taking the reins in 2012 as general manager of CSKA Moscow, the former Red Army club he’d once left behind.
“It’s a dream come true to experience something greater, not as a player but as management,” said Fedorov,
It’s also a challenge, though. And just as Yzerman is being asked to revive the Wings, Fedorov was tasked with doing the same in Moscow, where the club that once dominated – led by legends like Vladislav Tretiak and Valeri Kharlamov, as well as the Red Wings’ entire Russian Five – had fallen on hard times. A club that won 13 consecutive league titles prior to the defections of Pavel Bure and Fedorov hadn’t won one since, failing to even qualify for the playoffs in 2011.
But fueled by an influx of cash after the club was bought by Russia’s largest oil company, and aided by the 2012 NHL lockout, Fedorov and his staff quickly began trying to build a winner again.
“Things work different here than in North America,” he said. “But I felt like I knew what I wanted to see on the ice, what kind of team I wanted to have.”
Fedorov and Yzerman
And by the time his time was up as GM – Fedorov now serves as an assistant to the board of directors – the club was on top once more, reaching the Gagarin Cup finals three times in the last four seasons, and winning it all in April.
“I felt like we did very good job,” he said, “to get this club from its knees to stay strong now on both legs.”
Yzerman’s trying to do the same now for the Red Wings, officially hired as GM on the same day – April 19 – that Fedorov’s team finished its finals sweep with an overtime win. But Fedorov, like so many of Yzerman’s contemporaries, says he has no doubt he’ll get it done, “because I know what a leader he is.”
They were teammates for 13 seasons in Detroit, and perhaps because their careers often seemed like mirror images – from the jersey numbers on out – it took Fedorov a few years to clear the language and cultural barriers and understand the full picture.
“After a few playoffs, I kind of understood what he was going through and how much pressure there was in his position,” Fedorov said. “I could tell Stevie was worried about a lot of things. I wasn’t sure what exactly I had to do. But I knew I had to help him as much as I can on the ice.”
And there were times, certainly, as the playoff failures mounted, where Yzerman let Fedorov, whom he once called "the most talented player I've ever seen," know exactly what was expected of him.
He wasn’t the only one trying to coax more out of the Wings’ enigmatic star. Scotty Bowman did, too, in various ways. Early in Fedorov’s Hart Trophy-winning season in 1993-94 – with Yzerman on the shelf for a few months with a herniated disk – it was Bowman who called him into his office and told him it was time to carry the team.
But conversations with Yzerman, his captain, always seemed to matter a little more. Especially when those “chit-chats” took place on the eve of the playoffs.
“He would call me over,” Fedorov said, “and we would sit down and he would say, ‘Sergei, it’s an important time of year. Let’s bring our ‘A’ game. Let’s do what we do best.’
“I had huge respect for Stevie from the get-go. So it was very important that he looked toward me. For me, it’s a good sign.”
Bringing his 'A' game
For the team, too, because few did it better than Fedorov when he brought his ‘A’ game, leading the Wings in playoff scoring in six of his first seven seasons in Detroit. He easily could’ve won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1997 when the franchise ended its 42-year Stanley Cup drought, he returned from a bitter contract holdout in time to spark Wings’ repeat in ’98, and then did most of the heavy lifting on a line with Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan in that third Cup win in 2002. Still, he was taking his cues from The Captain.
“I just read how he was acting on the ice: when we were desperate, when we were ahead, when we were down, when we really had an important game to win,” Fedorov said. “He set a great example for us. He always seemed like he knows where to go and what to do. It was kind of easy to see: For him, it was business as usual, even when some moments were really tough.”
It was the same when Yzerman moved into the front office, learning the ropes in Detroit under Ken Holland and then taking the reins as GM himself in Tampa in the spring of 2010. His Lightning team struck quickly, reaching the Eastern Conference finals that first season. And soon after, Fedorov noticed something else about his ex-teammate.
It’d been a full decade since Detroit had used a high draft pick on a Russian prospect, but Yzerman in 2011 used his first three selections on Russian players – Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov and Nikita Nesterov. A year later, he used another first-round pick on Russian goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. And for Fedorov, well, “this was kind of a happy thought for me.”
When Fedorov took over as GM of CSKA Moscow, Kucherov’s contract with the club was expiring. And with a serious shoulder injury that was going largely untreated in Moscow, the young forward was eager to make the jump to the NHL. Yzerman was ready, too, and Fedorov, who was just beginning to sort out his own staff in Moscow, wasn’t going to stand in the way.
“As soon as I found out that Tampa wants to bring him to North America and rehab him, I basically put both hands up and said, ‘Absolutely,’” Fedorov said.
He took flak for that, and soon discovered some of the other challenges of the job that Yzerman knows well.
“It’s hard, man, it’s hard,” Fedorov said. “You’re not playing, you’re just watching. You know hockey very well, and you know the players very well and you know their capabilities, what they can do. But you’re (left) watching from the stands.”
'You never know'
And for now, he’s watching from afar. But with Yzerman returning to run the hockey operation in Detroit, and so many other familiar faces on the staff – Kris Draper, Pat Verbeek, Jiri Fischer, even Mark Howe – it’s only natural to wonder if Fedorov might someday join them.
“It’s a great question I can only fantasize about,” Fedorov said. “You never know – that’s the first answer.”
The second one is a bit more complicated, as everyone knows by now. Some, including his late father on occasion, insisted Fedorov always felt underappreciated in Detroit, trapped in Yzerman's shadow. And a pair of contract stalemates during his time in Detroit – the latter ending with him signing in Anaheim as a free agent in 2003 and finishing his NHL career elsewhere – were viewed as a betrayal by ownership.
But from Fedorov’s perspective, at least, that’s all in the past. And when you ask him if he could see himself back here again – his mother and brother still live in Michigan – the hesitation you hear is mostly him not wanting to sound presumptuous.
“I don’t want to start any rumors or anything, or put any kind of pressure,” Fedorov said. “But humanly, if we put aside everything else, why not? I would love to. …
“I can only say – and not (even) from professional point of view – I would just like to help. If I can help our organization to get better in any way … I’d be glad to do it. In any capacity.”
That said, he knows some wounds never fully heal, and even his 2015 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame couldn’t completely bridge the gap.
Fedorov won’t get dragged into the debate over why his jersey number hasn’t been retired yet. But if – or when – it does, it’d be “an honor, no doubt,” he says, and another chance “to thank a lot of people, especially from the beginning of my career in Detroit.”
“But I’m really at peace, one way or the other,” he adds, because he knows what he and the team accomplished during his time here – and what it all meant.
“It was just an unbelievable time,” he said. “It was good for everybody – fans, players, management, ownership.”
And so is this, he insists: Steve Yzerman calling the shots again in Detroit?
“Life is life, business is business,” Fedorov said. “But I’m glad he’s back. He’s a hockey man. He’s an experienced GM. And I’m sure he will do a wonderful job.”