Larry Wigge | NHL.com columnist
Jan 3, 2007, 12:00 PM EST
If you’ve been around Ken Hitchcock for any time at all, you can tell right away when you’ve hit upon a subject that he really, really wants to talk about. He gets this sparkle in his eyes and a smile on his face and 10 minutes later he might be ready to slow down for a second or two.
When Hitchcock was coaching the Dallas Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1999, he would get into this super-superlative zone when the subject was someone like star center Mike Modano and how he evolved from the skilled, young player from Michigan to the total package -- a player who could win games defensively as well as offensively.
The coach, you see, loves to find a way to mold his team around great talent and skills. But he may enjoy the challenge to see just how far he can push a player to the next level even more, especially when that player has the kind of leadership ability that can make the players around him even better.
A couple weeks ago, that sparkle that Hitchcock pays to special players came up when I mentioned Sergei Fedorov and how much of a disappointment he’s been in Anaheim and Columbus since he left the Detroit Red Wings, after he won Stanley Cups with them in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
Hitchcock shook his head like he disagreed with my assessment. Then, he got the sparkle in his eyes.
"Sergei," he said, with a confident tone, "is one of those players who is so skilled that he often becomes misunderstood, because of the expectations others have for him. We’ve all seen the breathtaking speed, the mind-boggling skills. But what I like most about Fedorov is how intellectual he is as a player. He thinks things out while he’s on the move on the ice. It’s like a different speed than most of us can comprehend."
And because we can’t comprehend it, we mock him when he’s not playing like a Hall of Famer.
"North American players, they think of the game in grunts and groans," Hitchcock continued. "That's where Fedorov is so intriguing. He sees the game from a flow standpoint. He understands how to create speed and transition from defense to offense. He understands what will work, and when."
The philosophy is simple. It’s like conducting an orchestra through the tough parts of a score to make beautiful music.
Sergei Fedorov has done it in the past when he played in Detroit and was the NHL's Rookie of the Year in 1991, Most Valuable Player when he was just 24 and in his fourth season in North America, plus, the Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
In a game where hockey experts are crying for more speed, more odd-man breaks instead of systematic forays up the ice, the 37-year-old center from Pskov, Russia, always has been a unique talent who can quickly get two or three strides ahead of any opponent before pulling away like Secretariat.
Fedorov is clearly a thoroughbred, a game-breaker like only a few others in the sport today. But hidden from view is an athlete covered in contradictions.
For instance, Fedorov had just 12 goals and 31 assists combined for Anaheim and Columbus last season, after scoring 30 or more goals in 10 of his previous 12 seasons (not counting the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season in which Sergei had 20 goals in 42 games). Talented, but temperamental, Sergei had just three goals and four assists in 14 games and was minus-5 this season before Hitchcock came in and gave Fedorov more responsibilities, along with a positive aura. In his first 16 games since, Sergei had nine goals and nine assists -- including two game-winning goals -- and was plus-6.
It’s been all about the joys of positive thinking of late for Fedorov, who still has the speed and ability to separate from an opponent for an odd-man break and his thought process as a playmaker is smarter than most of the players in the NHL. He’s got that aura about him that still puts him among the game’s elite ... when he wants to be in that class.
"Coach has come in and asked the veterans to lead the youngsters and Sergei has that old step back. It almost looks like he’s dancing out there a lot of the time," said Blue Jackets captain Adam Foote. "He’s got that glide on his skates that allows him to work his way into the openings, where he can either shoot himself or use his ability to think on the move and make some marvelous plays.
"He still has that killer instinct we saw so often when he was in Detroit."
"He was always incredible in the playoffs -- always there in the crucial moments," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom remembered.
Misunderstood? Temperamental? Perhaps, just looking for a challenge.
"When he first went to Anaheim and Columbus, Sergei seemed to be looking to make pretty plays," Scotty Bowman, Fedorov’s old coach in Detroit, told me earlier this season. "When he’s at his best, he’s skating with speed and thinking the game on the move. That’s when he makes things happen."
And that’s exactly what Fedorov is doing under Hitchcock.
"Things are so different around here," Fedorov observed. "We’re playing together more as a team ... with a positive attitude."
Fedorov never really lost either his killer instinct or positive attitude. He had 31 goals and 35 assists in his only full season in Anaheim. But the Ducks were retooling and Sergei’s big salary didn’t fit the plans new GM Brian Burke had for the team. And the losing this season turned everyone sour. Now, Sergei has been challenged the same way as Bowman used to challenge him in Detroit.
"I feel strong," Fedorov said. "I enjoy a challenge."
Fedorov is more than flash and dash. He is equally effective on the defensive side of the puck. At his best, Sergei is a complete player. He’s got all the tools -- skating, shooting, playmaker, great faceoff man, terrific when you give him a defensive assignment, plus a player who makes the players around him better.
"I had the chance to practice with some of the best players in the world back in my home country," Fedorov said of the innate skills and disciplined mind he has for the game. "I was taught not to rush myself, just play consistently and if I see a break to go through it and try to score."
Fedorov started playing hockey when he was nine. He remembers skating all day outdoors some days when he was growing up. He also remembers the photo of Russian great Sergei Makarov that he had on his desk at home.
"Makarov scored a lot of goals and did it with some crazy moves," Fedorov said. "I’d look at that photo on my desk and picture myself playing hockey someday."