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Fetisov nearing end of eventful career

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Posted: Friday June 12, 1998 03:40 PM

  Late bloomer: Fetisov didn't start his NHL career until age 31 (Elsa Hasch/Allsport)

DETROIT (AP) -- He can answer the question almost before it is asked. The cat and mouse game amuses him. When a man has been through as much as Viacheslav Fetisov, many things are amusing.

Questions about his possible retirement from hockey only make him smile. It is remembering the past that bothers the 40-year-old Russian.

"For the last two or three years, I've played every game like it might be my last," Fetisov said. "I like to compete."

It seems Fetisov, whom the Detroit Red Wings call Papa Bear, always has been a competitor. At life as well as at games. He was almost sent to Siberia. He stared down the barrel of a tank gun in Red Square. He lost a brother in a car accident, and he saw the lives of two close friends changed forever in another.

When he was in his prime, Fetisov was perhaps the Babe Ruth of Russian hockey. He was captain of the famed Central Red Army team. He won two Olympic gold medals and nine world titles.

Nearly a decade after arriving in the United States, Fetisov reached the ultimate NHL goal, helping Detroit win the 1997 Stanley Cup championship. Now, the Red Wings are poised to repeat, up 2-0 on the Washington Capitals. After that, he might consider retirement.

"I feel good, but I know I have to stop sometime from playing hockey," he said. "Maybe it's this year. But maybe not. I have to concentrate on the finals right now, then talk with my wife and made a decision."

His decision on retirement will be of small consequence for the man who speaks six languages and counts chess master Gary Kasparov and Russian president Boris Yeltsin among his friends.

Fetisov faced his toughest decisions at an early age. He challenged Viktor Tikhonov, the tough Russian coach who punched budding star Alexander Mogilny during the 1988 Olympics.

Fetisov asked to come to the NHL, but was told instead he would be sent to Siberia. He fought against it, finally winning his release from the Red Army. He was 31 when he finally joined the New Jersey Devils.

"It was tough in the beginning," Fetisov said. "It was tough to get out of the country, to fight against a Communist system. And it was tough when I got here, for a couple years. Many times I would think why am I here, why did I do it? I was a big player in Europe and people knew me. Here, all of a sudden, I had to struggle. But I keep telling myself I have to fight through this stuff."

Back home, meanwhile, things were changing. A coup attempt by Soviet hardliners was launched in August 1991 against then-president Mikhail Gorbachev. Fetisov and his wife, Lada, went to Red Square and stood at the barricades, facing down tanks with Yeltsin.

"It's tough, but they have to change society and the culture has to change," Fetisov said. "Everything. And sometimes people don't want to challenge themselves. But for me it was exciting to find something new in my life."

The Red Wings acquired Fetisov for a draft pick in 1995. He soon became part of Detroit's famed Russian Five, after coach Scotty Bowman added Igor Larionov to the mix of Sergei Fedorov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov.

"He's been a great pickup for us," Bowman said. "Because when we made the deal, we were looking for defensive help for the playoffs, thinking it would just be that year."

His life changed again last summer, six days after the Red Wings won the Cup with a sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers. Fetisov, Konstantinov and team massage therapist Sergei Mnatsakonov were in the now-infamous limousine crash that left Mnatsakonov and Konstantinov with career-ending brain stem injuries. Fetisov had a bruised chest and ribs. While recovering in the hospital, he couldn't help thinking about his brother, Anatoli, who had died in a car crash a decade earlier.

"It's a different situation, especially since last summer," Fetisov said. "I'm very fortunate to be here right now. I know what hockey has been like for me all my life, and I don't know what it's going to be like without hockey. But I want to give everything I have to the game because it's been good to me for such a long time."


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