In June of 1997, the Red Wings deposed of the Flyers in a Stanley Cup Final sweep. Fans lined the streets of Detroit with brooms in-hand for the parade; they had waited over four decades for this moment.
As a young girl growing up in the outskirts of Philadelphia, the 1997 Stanley Cup Final was the most significant heartbreak I had thus endured. I remember crying so hard that I gave myself a nosebleed—an experience I was both alarmed and comforted to learn I shared with Bill Simmons (albeit he was bleeding for the Bruins in 1979).
Who were these exotic, wily Red Wings, with the audacity to cripple Broad Street from right under my nose? Sadness churned to unquenchable anger. And for better or worse, that anger melted into obsession.
Their last names had an enigmatic lilt—a delicate rhythm of stressed syllables and soft endings. “The Wizards of Ov.” Фетисов. Ларионов. The Slavic alphabet felt cryptic; I remember trying to construct my own method of decoding the backward R. The five perpetrators in question were flashy and smooth and irresistible to watch—weaving improbable passes between legs, sticks, 200 pounds of rocketing muscle. They hammered rebounds and redirected ricochets until achieving what seemed to be inevitable when anything neared them: utter domination. My anger turned toward myself. The Detroit Red Wings are my enemy, but why can't I hate them? Why do I lie awake at night thinking about this goal or that pass?
Here's where things get complicated: the objects of my obsession were from Russia—a country that did not even exist in sovereign form when I was born. What on earth was this mysterious hockey hinterland, and why was its singular purpose to break my heart?
I remember asking my parents one day; the looks on their faces were enough. Russia was one of those places that they talked about on the news with the affectation of the grim reaper. Much like falling in love with the wrong person, the more I was deterred, the hotter the flames burned—Russia had ensnared me. The architecture. The hockey. The winters.
I stole my Mom's credit card and bought a rare English copy of Anatoly Tarasov's memoir on Ebay. Tarasov, the father of Soviet hockey, had theories and tactics as unconventional and romantic as I dreamed they would be. The Summit Series, the Olympics, 1992 and Lake Placid....the aesthetic, the political soap opera, the concrete brutalist backdrop. The Soviet hockey program was the subject of more than one poorly-graded school essay; I was gifted two hermit crabs one summer and named them Nina and Tatiana. God help us all.
The first college course in which I enrolled was “Russia Since 1917.” The professor—a close friend of Gorbachev—refused to use email, only a fax machine. The more rich and complex Russia's history became, the more complicated its participants, the worse I fell for the madness. I remember holing up in my dorm room to watch Little Vera and Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears. I began to imagine Sergei Fedorov in the bleakness of a Soviet winter; it was hard to picture given how seamlessly he seemed to fit into the fast car, hyper-commercial fabric of U.S. sports—catalogue good looks and Hollywood girlfriends. When I later learned the whole story from Keith Gave’s The Russian Five—the daring defections, clandestine meetings and duffel bags full of cash—I felt relieved I had not known it sooner. I don't think teenage me could have handled it.
I asked my parents for a plane ticket to Moscow when I graduated from Columbia University. I would go back again as a tourist in the dead of winter, and in 2018, I would move there. Standing on the ice as CSKA Moscow lifted the Gagarin Cup—a team now managed by Sergei Fedorov—I did not feel the elements of culture clash that so often render us useless with impostor syndrome. I felt like I belonged there—if not for any other reason than sheer force of will. My whole life was a road that began on a tearful June Saturday and led to a sheet of ice in Russia; I belonged there because of how fiercely I had loved them, even in spite of everyone else’s best efforts.
Here is the not-so-silver lining: Russia has broken my heart many more times since that first brush.
It has hurt me less so in hockey and more so in my inability to fully understand our rift, conceive of the vastness and—ultimately—to hold Russia close. My heart aches every time I step foot into the country; it is a mix of gratitude for a reunion that feels fated, and yet an acknowledgement that I will never fully grasp whatever it is about Russia that first called me at the hands of Fedorov, Larionov, Fetisov, Kozlov and Konstantinov.
In a few weeks, I am going back. I will cry in Red Square. Eat an ice cream at the GUM. Hum Moscow Nights on Nikolskaya and trace fading posters on the walls of the old Spartak stadium in Sokolniki Park.
One of my favorite memories was showing my parents the Winter Palace for the first time. "If it wasn't for you, we'd never have come here," my Dad said. Decades of fear, viewing Russians as "the other," melted in the face of confrontation with reality. In so many ways we are the same, and our differences have served us, and my beloved sport, richly—if only our politicians could see.
Whoever believes that hockey can't change the world has never met me.
And they certainly never watched Sergei Fedorov.