ONE-ON-ONE WITH SERGEI FEDOROV
There are some hockey players whose signatures on the game could never be forged.
You may attempt to mimic their exact starting conditions—a frozen backyard pond, the formative coach, an influential father—yet the alchemy would never produce a replica. Sergei Fedorov is one such example. There will never be a carbon copy #91, and Sergei himself acknowledges that it would be nearly impossible to reconstruct the scenario in which he became a supernova. You’ll read more about that below.
In Gabe Polsky’s documentary In Search of Greatness, true sporting dominance appears to be the result of a certain degree of creativity, artistic expression and showmanship—a boredom with the rules by which everyone else governs themselves.
Between those white Nike skates and impossible finishes, Fedorov hardly breaks this mold. His style was definitive, and for years, untouchable—ushering in a Hollywood aura that translated on and off the ice.
In light of this legacy, I was not sure what I would be met with when I sat down across from Fedorov. Where one might expect ego or, at the very least, a media-ready suit of armor, I was met with the opposite—a kindness that was almost disarming. Skates and pads were strewn on the floor of his office alongside an unopened bottle of Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Whiskey. Sergei would not let me apologize for taking extra time to set up. “If it’s not done right, why do it?” he insisted.
You can see where such an ethos has gotten him.
A three-time Stanley Cup winner and three-time World Champion, Fedorov’s legacy remains an unshakable monument to Soviet-era work ethic and the power of creativity. We caught up at CSKA HQ in Moscow, where Sergei discussed his defection, the state of Russian hockey and much more.
GILLIAN KEMMERER (GK): We are sitting in Russia, at the headquarters of CSKA…a country and a team from which you defected thirty years ago. Back then, did you ever think you’d come back?
SERGEI FEDOROV (SF): Being twenty years old, I honestly didn’t think about it because life was ahead of me. I was focused on what was waiting for me when I arrived in Detroit. Things happened quickly—thank god I came a few months before the season started so I could acclimate and have time off to think. At that age, you don’t think that deeply or analyze what you’re doing.
I was worried about my parents and family. As far as coming back, there was no reason to—I was looking to play in North America. Five years later, after we figured out the traveling situation, I came back and enjoyed that trip to Russia. Even though my parents were already living in North America with my brother, I got to come back to my home country.
GK: You turned down the first offer that the Red Wings made you on the basis of family concerns. How did you ultimately explain to your parents that you were defecting?
SF: They never knew anything. I did not explain anything to anyone. At the time, I was worried about the repercussions on my family. The Red Wings offered me a really great deal in their minds—and it was a great deal—but I was not ready. I came to meet and talk about it, but I was not ready to leave. After that meeting, I understood what was in place for me and that it was real; I did not have any middleman between me and the management [of Detroit]. I was preparing myself to leave—even though it took just a few minutes to make the decision—and in two years, I went. I was serving in the army anyway, and once I finished serving, I was able to make a clean break. I was already over the emotions and ready to go.
GK: So your parents had no idea?
SF: No. They lived 2,000 kilometers away from Moscow, up north in the Murmansk region. It didn’t seem like a good idea to mention it on the phone. I was not thinking about it everyday—I knew certain information, and then I got another letter [from Detroit].
During the summer, my parents saw me pack all my stuff for Red Army training camp. They told me, years later, that they were wondering why I needed so much stuff! A few silk suits, a few shoes, ties, t-shirts and shorts. I remember that for sure. Then I left for training camp, and then we went to the United States. I didn’t choose to tell them because for two years, I knew what I was doing. I was too young to look at myself from the other side.
GK: I come from an Italian family, and Russian mothers remind me of Italian mothers…they are worriers.
SF: My Mom worries still—to this day. After all these years that we’ve been through together as a family, she still worries way too much.
GK: When you compare the population of Russia to the number of Russian players in the NHL, it is interesting how few we see playing in North America today. Where does the problem lie?
SF: The problem is simple, and I know it because I run CSKA—including twelve teams and a hockey school. Twelve teams develop every single year, and then at age 17 or 18, the players are let on to the junior team. Then the VHL team, and then the KHL team.
But after these kids finish the hockey school here, a gap emerges. Every year, we have the top six or eight players leaving after they graduate from hockey school to North America. That’s the problem. They think they are ready to take on North American life and they think their agents, Mom and Dad know better than we do. I don’t know where they train—maybe academies, universities.
Agents are the problem for me, parents are the problem for me. The kids do not know any better—some are leaving even if the CHL [Canadian Hockey League] drafted them. [CSKA] over the last seven years has had the ability to unlock their potential, but the kids feared that they would not be used because our KHL team was so strong and we did not have a VHL team. Now we do, but kids are still leaving—in fact, nine guys just left again. They were top of their class. That is the problem. They will not sign an MHL (junior) contract.
GK: So you feel that if the CSKA prospects stayed here and played through your junior system, they would be more likely to go to the NHL—versus leaving directly for North America at 17 or 18?
SF: I know that they can get a better hockey education here versus [in North America]—because there, after one year, the base is gone. You have to find who to train with, good trainers, where to eat and where to sleep. They are not professionals—parents, agents are gone. [Agents] give the kids some standard lip service, cheer them on, and that’s it.
Statistically, most of these guys disappear. They try to come back, but lose everything in two years.
GK: I was standing on the ice when CSKA won the Gagarin Cup in April - and when I looked around, I saw the likes of Ilya Sorokin and Kirill Kaprizov. Their days are numbered in the KHL. As the General Manager of CSKA, how do you walk the line? You understand their NHL dreams on a personal level, but you’re also fighting for talent.
SF: I only do one thing: provide the best-case scenario on and off the ice. I hope that they grow into great KHL players, and after that, they are on their own. If they ask me for my advice, sure—off the record, we could talk forever. But that’s usually not the case. They have agents and sources, friends in the NHL who already went through things. You mentioned only two players—but again, eight or nine players, the most talented in our system and in Russia, leave at 17.
We talk with parents, players…they want to believe that they’ll get their cookies right after they finish hockey school. I tell them to go to the junior teams. Now we have a VHL team for that same reason; we try to create a good environment so that players can grow. But the standards they hold for themselves are high. Some are right, some are not even close. It’s about understanding where you’re at—is it real, or surreal? For us, they are surreal until they get to the VHL. But I think CSKA has the system to help young talents get to the top.
And it’s not only CSKA. Agents, in my mind, are not fair to the young players who ask them to get to North America.
GK: New York Rangers prospect Vitali Kravtsov has made big news lately. He was sent down to Hartford and decided to exercise a clause in his contract that allowed him to return to Traktor Chelyabinsk. It has sparked a debate over whether an NHL prospect better develops in the AHL versus the KHL.
SF: It’s a unique situation—I do not know Vitaly well as a player or a person. I know what they’re debating: he was not willing to stay in the system, to go on the buses for 10-12 hours. Where were his agents and parents to set expectations? Did he think that he was going to the New York Rangers’ top two lines? He could be a top-six forward, but if you look at the roster, there are already 27 or 28 players. Where do you fit? That’s where agents need to come in to set expectations. You have to talk to the kid like an adult. Obviously Vitali has great potential, but I have seen a lot of great young talents where nothing happens.
I think we have to wait and see. It’s possible he will get more ice time [here], and will develop in a year or so to play in the NHL. But again, he left the system of the Rangers. It is going to be up to him. He needs a plan now. I’m telling you, he needs a plan every game. He chose to come back and play for his home team, which has really struggled. Russian fans welcome that. American fans, probably not — they think that in the North American system, he can learn quicker (smaller ice size and so on). That is true too. We have to wait and see. Hopefully, he becomes a KHL star—but now, I think he has to stay here until 24 or 25 years old. He does not need to go back earlier than that, aside from training camps. He needs a good advisor, and support of his parents—but they are not to advise him on what to do. Then we’ll see.
It’s not a strong opinion; it’s a dry opinion on the basis of my experience.
GK: What is your blanket advice to Russian players coming to the NHL?
SF: For me, play in the KHL and become a top player here. That’s what Kaprizov and Sorokin have done. That’s a good platform, not NHL level—but it’s good, comparative hockey here.
If we come back to Kravtsov, he needs to do the same.
GK: North America often comes with higher salaries, more distractions…
SF: They need to keep their head down and keep working. The locker room, what’s on the ice…that’s more important than anything away from the arena. When you create something, create an aura there, then you can explore more about life outside. Stay in the system, think about hockey games, think about practices…come there early. Life will always be there outside of that. But if you are not going to do well in hockey, tell me the point of why you are there. If you come to the NHL…game on, dude!
GK: You came from a system where players trained together 24/7 essentially in a military barracks, a bubble. That is where those historic five-man units were born. Do you think that Soviet-era hockey could ever be replicated, given how much our training systems have changed?
SF: [Laughs] I don’t know. Those platforms, those coaches don’t exist anymore. The world is bigger now. Before, we were just very focused. We knew we were not going anywhere—one country, one home. Now it’s a free market.
This question is one I have been asked since 2009. Before, I thought it was possible. But the NHL does not work that way, to create a Russian unit specifically. It would be interesting to see if three, then four, Russian players were playing on the same team and line together. I do not know what style of hockey would be played, because it would be hard to recreate the style [the Russian Five] played.
GK: So much of creativity in hockey has been attributed to playing on a pond in the backyard growing up. Slava Fetisov said to me yesterday, “How can you be creative when kids aren’t playing in the streets anymore?”
SF: That’s a deep thought and I agree with that. I played in the streets, at home…I played hockey 24/7 as a kid. It did not have to be organized. We played on soccer fields in the winter. Hockey has become so commercial in Russia—not enough ice, not enough rinks, even though our country is doing everything possible to create facilities like Fetisov’s school in Domodedovo. But we are just starting.
Remember the first question you asked…about 30 Russian players in the NHL? We had to survive the nineties; hockey was not the first goal. People had to survive, get a job, have money to buy food. It’s like wine—if you stop raising grapes for fifteen years, nothing will happen. And even though we have talented young players, they leave too early. I still do not understand why their parents and agents think that they will survive in North America, with no one waiting for them there.
GK: Tarasov talks about you and your teammates in his memoir—about reducing the importance of the goal scorer and rewarding every moment that contributes to the play. Do you miss that mentality?
SF: Both [North American and Soviet] training systems are right. They both survived and won through the years. Both systems should exchange the best ideas and adopt them.
Soviet training—under Tarasov, Tikhonov—was all about character. It was all about team first, your last name second. We had careers because of that mental setup, and that is why we won in Detroit. I was just going to tell you—if we take the Russian Five and look at the ages of the men on that unit, we were from different generations, but all from the Soviet Union system. That is why the Russian Five succeeded.
If we go even deeper, I never thought to myself, “I have to score.” I played the game the way I was taught, and when [the Russian Five] got together eventually, we tried for each other more than for ourselves. We helped each other—we never talked about it, just reacted on the ice.
GK: Off the ice, how did you keep your ties back to your Russian heritage?
SF: I eventually brought my family [to America]. We were able to live in that heritage when my parents, my brother joined me 4-5 years later. When the internet came in, phoning back home became easier. My parents did not learn English right away, so it was an all-Russian atmosphere at home when I got back from road trips, games. Slava [Fetisov] and Igor [Larionov] had a lot of friends back home, and we were in the same boat. We exchanged some news, talks…but that was seven or eight years after I arrived. I wanted to survive and make the best of my time—I didn’t want to go anywhere, I liked Detroit. I did whatever was possible to acclimate and stay on one team.
GK: There are some great Russian traditions, superstitions…things that even I adopted when I lived in Moscow. Did you get any of your North American teammates on board? Did you all ever sit in silence before leaving for road trips?
SF: Not my teammates…but coming out of the locker room, when we were leaving for a trip, I always sat down for a few seconds. Look around, don’t say anything, then go. It’s a focus thing—you reboot. Did I get my uniform, my skates, my sticks?
GK: You were probably the first Russian that many Detroit players had ever spent sizable time with—did you feel that you needed to represent your culture in a specific way?
SF: I did not think about it, but I knew that they understood what kind of player I was. I tried to do everything on the ice to make my team succeed. They treated me really well, and helped me right away to get going. In my first season, I scored about 30 goals…that came from the warmth I received from my North American friends, fans, team management.
GK: Detroit is a down-home American city. A lot of the economic trouble it faced came from international competition in the auto industry. I always found it ironic, in a way, that their hockey success stemmed from such an international squad.
SF: We struggled, as you know…seven years is a long time. I am glad we represented something that stayed together for that long. It was a long time for management to be patient with us—and it was not just about Russians, it was the whole team. When we got Scotty Bowman, I knew we were on the path to win at some point.
GK: Not everyone was patient with you. I remember Don Cherry calling for the removal of the Russians from the NHL. Did it bother you?
SF: I heard Don Cherry - he was across the border in Windsor, so I went on his radio show once. After that, he was cool. I think he took it easier on the Russians a little bit after that. How could you not? We scored points here, there, we were contenders…you could see it. You can’t criticize the league that other players were coming—it was a lot of good, hard games. I think he understood that [laughs]…even though he is still Don Cherry.
GK: This week, some members of the Russian media blasted Evgeni Malkin for having a U.S. passport. It frames the final question I was going to ask you. Are things between Russia and America better or worse than when you first came in the early nineties?
SF: The atmosphere is more charged now, for sure. Back then, we did not have such close interests. Both countries had buffers. Now it’s so close, and rubs off on athletes, diplomats. It is touchy—nerves are open.
GK: Are you surprised that this Malkin story took off the way it did?
SF: It’s like we are living in the nineteenth or eighteenth century instead of the twenty-first…as if someone never had a dual passport before!
It’s a normal practice, and everyone remembers their heritage. I am not someone who would judge a decision like that. Personally, I do not see any problems with it…and this did not happen yesterday, it happened years ago!
There are already altercations between countries, and then this comes into the pile….I think it’s not good. President Putin, Mr. Lavrov are trying to get together with a powerful country like the U.S., and Mr. Trump is trying to get together too. But a lot of powers do not want that, unfortunately. That is as much as I want to get into politics.
This article was also published in Russian for Sport-Express. Translation by Andrey Osadchenko.