Tradition calls for Detroit Red Wings rookies to buy the rest of the team dinner at some point during the season. But in late February, after veteran center Sergei Fedorov ended a bitter and at times divisive contract dispute that had kept him out of action for 59 games by signing a six-year, $38 million deal, the team decided it was time to break with tradition. This season it would be the rich 28-year-old Russian who would pick up the dinner tab.
Last summer Fedorov had alienated his three Russian teammates by skipping a historic trip to Moscow with the Stanley Cup they had just won. A restricted free agent after the season, he hacked off everyone else in the organization by pledging as late as January never to play for Detroit again and then signing an offer sheet from the Carolina Hurricanes, which earned him the nickname Nyet Wing. The Red Wings eventually matched the offer, which could net Fedorov $28 million in salary and bonuses this season. Just a couple of weeks after he signed, the Detroit players decided that Fedorov would take them all to a steak house as a first step toward patching things up with them.
The Red Wings, it turns out, were more than happy to bury the hatchet with Fedorov that night—right into about three dozen porterhouse steaks. "We ate everything we could stick in our faces," says forward Joey Kocur. Seafood platters followed the steaks. Waiters rushed to the table with expensive ports, Godiva chocolates and fistfuls of cigars. The bill came to more than $10,000 before Fedorov added a tip roughly the size of a small car loan. "We gave Sergei a bit of a hard time when he came back," says right wing Darren McCarty. "It was all in good fun. But he's a smart guy, and he knew the best way to shut up a bunch of hockey players was to put food in our mouths. We pigged out."
Since that banquet Detroit has been feasting on opponents. With the regular season drawing to a close, no team has been hotter than the defending Stanley Cup champions, who at week's end were 9-1-2 in their last 12 games and had the second best record (44-20-15) in the Western Conference, two points behind the Dallas Stars.
A few days before hosting the feast, Fedorov walked up to Red Wings owner Mike Hitch in the team's dressing room in the Joe Louis Arena and said, "I will earn every penny." After a slow start Fedorov is starting to keep that promise. Detroit's playoff hopes lie mostly in the hands of goalie Chris Osgood, but the team's surge is due in large part to Fedorov, who in 1993-94 was the league MVP and won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward. Fedorov was the Wings' leading playoff scorer (20 points) last season and is perhaps the most gifted skater in the game, but he still hasn't beaten the rap that he doesn't play hard all the time. "Anyone who questions the money Sergei got doesn't understand one thing—there aren't two Sergei Fedorovs in the NHL," says McCarty. "When he wants to play, he can be the best player in the league."
After leading the Russian Olympic team to a silver medal in Nagano, Fedorov returned to Detroit in excellent shape and, with the addition of a weight program to his workout regimen, has been playing more like a power forward, muscling defenders and digging pucks out of the corners. He's so happy to be back, he comes to the rink on his days off for conditioning work or just to sit at his locker and tape his sticks. The contract has done what no one thought a huge deal could possibly do: It has lit a fire under Fedorov. Through Sunday he had 10 points in his last eight games, including a goal and an assist in a 5-2 romp over the New York Rangers last Saturday at home. "Sergei changes the dynamic of this team because he is a unique talent," says Detroit assistant coach Dave Lewis. "It's hard to put into words. It's his speed, his versatility. He's a guy the opponent must always be aware of on the ice, kind of like Wayne Gretzky."
Under terms of his contract, Fedorov received a $14 million signing bonus, gets $2 million in salary and will be paid a $12 million bonus if Detroit reaches the conference finals—all for four months' work. But over the life of the contract Fedorov will earn an average of $6.3 million per season, which is a fair price for a player of his caliber. ( Philadelphia Flyers center Eric Lindros, for example, makes $8 million per season.)
Fedorov knows the value of money, for it was a bribe of 500 Swiss francs to a Soviet team official that allowed him to defect from the Red Army team in July 1990. During that period of his life, he didn't have a car or much money, and he lived in an army barracks. "That was sucking very, very much," Fedorov says.
Still, the potential playoff bonus was hard for the members of the Detroit organization and some fans to swallow. The Wings tried unsuccessfully to get the league to throw out the offer sheet, saying that the clause calling for the $12 million bonus was unfair to Detroit because the powerful Red Wings had a good chance to advance to the conference finals while the Hurricanes would be hard-pressed to even reach the playoffs. Earlier in the season one teammate was quoted in a Detroit newspaper as saying, "How can you pay a guy $6 million or even $5 million if you have to go to him before every game and ask him to play [hard]?" (Fedorov did help dispel his reputation as a soft player in last year's conference finals against the hated Colorado Avalanche when he skated with broken ribs and scored the series-winning goal.)
Upon his return to the lineup six weeks ago, the home crowd booed Fedorov mercilessly until two things happened: Coach Scotty Bowman called a local sports radio show from his car phone and told the fans to lay off, and Fedorov scored both goals in a 2-0 home win against Colorado on April 1. After receiving a standing ovation when he was named the game's first star, Fedorov was near tears.