Hockey Hall considers pair of Wings greats

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nikolai Borschevsky of the Toronto Maple Leafs ended the Red Wings' quest for their first Stanley Cup in 38 years on the first day of May in 1993, with a deflection-assisted goal that reeks with infamy in the memories of Wings' fans.

Six months later, in the eighth game of the following season, Steve Yzerman suffered a herniated disc in his neck. Yzerman, who had marshalled six straight 100-point scoring campaigns, would miss one-third of the season.

It began to feel like another cup would never come.

The Wings had ceased being The Dead Things. But the heart of Hockeytown would not heal until the cup returned.

With his most productive season, 24-year-old Sergei Fedorov silenced doubters, lifted his team in The Captain's absence and led the drive to a 100-point season and the playoffs.

After his return in late December, Yzerman said, "I've only seen two other players that can dominate a game like Sergei, and that's Wayne (Gretzky) and Mario (Lemieux)."

Another 24-year-old, Nicklas Lidstrom, delivered abundant offense from the back end to help seal the breach that season.

Lidstrom's star did not burn as brightly as Fedorov's, then. But it would eventually eclipse it.

And Lidstrom would endure.

"What happened is that he turned out to be one of the very, very, very best Red Wings players of all-time," said Jim Devellano, senior vice-president of the team, who drafted Lidstrom and Fedorov.

A lock and some luck

After Borschevsky's notorious notch, it would be another four seasons before the long-awaited Stanley Cup win. But that would be the first of three in six seasons.

All along the way, Lidstrom and Fedorov were mainstays.

It approaches certainty that both will be announced today in Toronto as inductees of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Surprises occur. Brendan Shanahan's induction came a year later than expected, two years ago. But Lidstrom and Fedorov appear likely selections, in a field that includes, among others, Mark Recchi, Eric Lindros, Jeremy Roenick and Phil Housley.

The induction of Lidstrom, with his four Stanley Cups and seven Norris Trophies for defenseman of the year, is a foregone conclusion.

As they built their magnificent winning machine of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Red Wings knew Fedorov would excel. About Lidstrom, they were slightly less certain.

"Oh, yeah, we knew in his case that Sergei would be a superstar, because when we drafted him he was the best 18-year-old player in Russia," Devellano said. "And if you're the best 18-year-old player in Russia, you're a good hockey player. So, we knew we were getting a hell of a player.

"There was no surprise there. He was exactly what was expected.'

But as he considered the 1989 NHL Entry Draft that spring, Devellano said he was less convinced about the young Swedish defenseman.

"No, that was a little different," he said.

"When we took Lidstrom in the third round, we took him at the advice of our European scout at the time, a guy by the name of Christer Rockstrom (currently European scout for the Canadiens).

"He described the player to me at the draft as a supremely talented young man who could skate and had good hockey sense, but wasn't very strong and wasn't very big."

Rockstrom assured him Lidstrom would grow and develop, and counseled that he should stay in Sweden for a couple of seasons until he did so, Devellano said.

"Well, we did that," he said. "He stayed. He got bigger. He got stronger

"I'm not so sure I knew when we got him how good he could be, because I hadn't seen him. But when he arrived, it was pretty apparent almost from the beginning that he was almost certainly going to be a good player."

In the course of 20 seasons, good became great.

When his frequent partner Larry Murphy arrived from the Maple Leafs in March 1997, he saw what Devellano already knew: Lidstrom not only rewarded Rockstrom's promise, he was one of the best in the game.

"It was just clear, off the bat, how reliable he was and how consistent he was — every shift, every game," Murphy said.

"I've never seen anyone who played at such a high level so consistently. It was quite apparent this guy was a very special player."

Lidstrom won a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and was 12-time All-Star.

He was the first European-born-and-trained captain to win the Stanley Cup, as well as the first to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

He played in the playoffs a record 20 consecutive seasons, tied with Larry Robinson, and the second-most playoff games in history, 263.

'Always dangerous'

As Murphy recalls, Murphy said, Lidstrom was not his first defense partner in Detroit.

It was Fedorov.

"Scotty (Bowman, Red Wings coach) put Sergei back on defense when we had injury issues," Murphy said.

Before he arrived, Murphy said he was more familiar with Fedorov's play.

"Just a tremendous skater, extremely efficient, just the perfect stride," Murphy said. "If you were to show some kid, you know, how do you skate, Fedorov is the guy.

"So you put that with the fact that he had great hands, great scoring ability, played well on both ends of the rink and he was a guy that had game-breaking potential. He could get ahold of the puck and go through the whole team and make a huge play. He was that guy.

"He was always dangerous."

Amid the offensive onslaught of those years, when the Wings regularly changed the complete complexion of games — even playoff series — in a blink, Yzerman and Fedorov perennially led the shock troops.

In the playoff drive to the historic 1997 Stanley Cup, Fedorov accounted for 20 points in the 20 games.

"He was a superstar," Devellano said. "And, of course, we already had Steve Yzerman. And so, by picking Fedorov (fourth round, 70th overall in the 1989 draft), it gave us two very, very star centermen.

"And that was one reason we were so good, for so long."

For his brilliant performance, including with Yzerman on the shelf, Fedorov won the 1994 Hart Memorial Trophy for most valuable player. He was he first winner trained in Europe.

Fedorov won two Selke trophies as best defensive forward. He was a six-time All-Star.

"He's right at the top," Bowman said of Fedorov's status in the game, four days before Yzerman's return in 1993.

"He's got the greatest leg strength I've ever seen in a player. His legs are amazing. But there aren't too many around with that skill set, either."

Quiet pioneers

Despite different personalities, Lidstrom and Fedorov had similar approaches to the game.

"Neither of them were rah-rah guys," Murphy said. "But they were so committed, it was obvious to all of us."

What they also shared was cementing the reputation of European players.

Others had preceded them. But few accomplished what they did.

"It was the Detroit Red Wings who brought this franchise to where it was because they scouted Europe quite well and were ahead of the curve in terms of seeking European talent," Murphy said.

"Sergei was one of the trailblazers, one of the earliest Soviet, Russian players to come over and play.

"I think, the deal with Nick and the perception of Europeans is that he came in at a time when people were still somewhat skeptical. Can a European player be one of the all-time greats? He was the one who put that issue to rest."

As he prepared for the draft last week, with memories of the two choices from 1989 refreshed by the pending announcement at 4 p.m. today by the Hockey Hall of Fame, Devellano was a little wistful about the years Lidstrom and Fedorov played for the Red Wings.

"It was pretty good to watch, I'll tell ya!" he said.

Two for Toronto

What: The Hockey Hall of Fame Selection Committee on Monday will announce players who will be inducted with the 2015 class.

Wings: Former Red Wings greats Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov are among the players eligible for the first time in 2015.

Induction: The 2015 class will be inducted on Nov. 9 in Toronto.