With Sergei Fedorov, the conversation always comes back to skating.
You could be talking about his dramatic defection from the Soviet Union in 1990 or his heavy, accurate shot or his friendship with the guys in Guns N' Roses. But when the subject is Fedorov, a dynamic center for the Detroit Red Wings, the talk always turns to the wonders he works with steel blades on his feet. "Best skater I've ever seen," Detroit captain Steve Yzerman states flatly.
"The strongest skater I've seen in 21 years," agrees Red Wing defenseman Mark Howe. "He's got unbelievable balance, strength and speed. The guy just doesn't get knocked down."
Not by some of the NHL's most bruising players. And certainly not by a bicycle built for two.
On an off day during Detroit's recent West Coast swing, Fedorov and teammate Nicklas Lidstrom decided to spend an afternoon rollerblading near Newport Beach, Calif. The fact that Fedorov had never 'bladed before daunted him not in the least. Things were going fine—"This is easy," he crowed—until a tandem bike took a wobbly left turn in front of him. Only then did it occur to Fedorov that he had no idea how to decelerate. A major collision seemed inevitable, but Fedorov simply hurdled the bike's rear wheel and kept skating.
Soon his attention was snagged by a roller-hockey game in progress on a nearby playground. More precisely, it was snagged by a certain right wing, a raven-haired woman in her mid-20's wearing a black and gray cat suit. When she scored on a breakaway, he cheered. But it was not until Catwoman hustled back on defense that Fedorov melted completely. "Look at that forecheck," he said. "She's right on the ball! She's a great little two-way forward!"
A woman after his own heart. Fedorov, you see, is the best two-way player in the world. A fourth-round draft choice in 1989, Fedorov arrived in Detroit nearly four years ago—having been spirited out of Portland, Ore., in the private jet of Red Wing owner Mike Hitch shortly after playing for the Soviet Union in the Goodwill Games—and has been smothering opponents ever since.
This year he has blossomed into one of the NHL's most dangerous scorers, thanks in part to Detroit coach Scotty Bowman, who gets his kicks by putting Fedorov's line out with offensive defensemen Lidstrom and Paul Coffey, and in part to a...herniated disk?
That disk, in the neck of Yzerman, was injured on Oct. 21 in a game against the Winnipeg Jets. The mishap put Yzerman out for more than two months. When the Red Wing captain went down, Bowman called Fedorov in for a little talk, saying, in essence, O.K., kid, time to carry the team. With linemates Vyacheslav Kozlov and Dino Ciccarelli, Fedorov has done just that. After dropping seven of their first 10 games this season, the Red Wings have gone 22-7-4. Stoking that bull run has been Fedorov, who had 32 goals and 43 assists through Sunday, and who has spent the season trading the NHL's overall scoring lead with Wayne Gretzky of the Los Angeles Kings.
It seemed cruel to the other NHL teams when Yzerman returned to the lineup on Dec. 27. If you're a coach with only one checking line, whose line do you check, Fedorov's or Yzerman's? So far Fedorov seems to be getting more intense defensive attention—some of it illegal.