As far as love affairs go, it was at times tumultuous, the relationship between Sergei Fedorov and the hockey fans in Detroit.
Mention Stevie Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom’s names in Hockeytown and the fawning will begin in earnest.
Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Sid Abel, Terry Sawchuk and Ted Lindsay will get you nothing other than a bow down on one knee from the person to whom you utter the names.
And it’s not Normie Ullman’s fault that he wore the same no. 7 immortalized by Lindsay, but Normie scored 324 goals for the Red Wings and it’s too bad that he gets forgotten about in Detroit.
Ullman’s name should be in the rafters at Joe Louis Arena, as well as at the new arena that will open in a couple of years. And I’m not one to retire numbers like they do at the deli counter.
I believe that if you’re going to take a number out of circulation forever, then your case ought to be pretty damn compelling. To me, it’s almost as hallowed as being inducted into that sport’s Hall of Fame.
Which brings me back to Fedorov.
You bring up Fedorov in Detroit and it’s not a slam dunk, like it is with the other men whose numbers have been retired by the Red Wings.
Fedorov doesn’t emit the same aura as his honored teammates Yzerman and Lidstrom.
You can’t find a soul in Detroit who’ll besmirch no. 19 and no. 5, but no. 91 will sometimes elicit an eye roll and a snort of disgust.
It’s the same old thing with the Detroit sports fan: you’d better not leave on your own volition.
There are two things the sports fans in the Motor City demand from their pro athletes: loyalty, and empathy for their pain.
The lack of the latter is what got Prince Fielder turned into a pariah in this town.
And the perceived lack of the former is why Fedorov doesn’t get nearly the same love as Yzerman and Lidstrom, with whom Sergei won three Stanley Cups.
But only three Red Wings scored more goals in the Winged Wheel than Fedorov, who tallied 400: Howe, Yzerman and Delvecchio. And only Howe and Yzerman scored more playoff goals as a Red Wing than Fedorov, who notched 50.
That’s some not bad company.
Sergei is in the Hockey Hall of Fame now, fair and square. He was formally inducted on Monday night, along with Lidstrom, who goes by the nickname The Perfect Human.
Fedorov, the Imperfect Human (tying him with billions of people around the world behind Lidstrom), has waited long enough. It’s time to put aside whatever rancor is left about Fedorov and string his stinking number into the rafters at The Joe.
I can still hear some gasps of indignation.
But he left! He left us!
He held out! He was a Johnny-come-lately in 1998!
He had a weird relationship with Anna Kournikova!
Yes, yes, and yes.
Fedorov remains the last Red Wing to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP—in 1994. He was just as much a part of the Red Wings’ Cups won in 1997, 1998 and 2002 as Yzerman and Lidstrom.
Yes, Fedorov bolted town as a free agent in the summer of 2003, defecting for the second time in his life, this time for Anaheim.
Yes, Fedorov’s contract holdout in 1998 was something that Yzerman and Lidstrom—and every other Red Wing, frankly—never engaged in.
Yes, some would call Fedorov’s relationship with teen tennis star Kournikva unseemly and definitely non-Yzerman and non-Lidstrom-ish.
But what should really matter is what Fedorov did on the ice for the Red Wings, and this is where it gets ironic.
Bob Probert. Denny McLain. Miguel Cabrera. Bobby Layne.
Those are just four Detroit athletes whose off-the-field/ice issues are legendary.
Probert, with the bottle and the drugs.
Denny with his suspensions in 1970 for carrying a gun and for dumping ice water on a sportswriter—long before the ice bucket challenge existed.
Cabrera with his DUI arrests.
Layne with his party-hearty ways.
Yet Probert was about as popular as Yzerman in his heyday with the Red Wings.
McLain returned from suspension in 1970 to thunderous applause at Tiger Stadium.
Cabrera is revered in Detroit.
And Layne is so worshiped in Motown that some folks actually think he put a curse on the Lions.
So why doesn’t Fedorov get the same accommodation?
I think of the three grievances listed above, the most egregious to Red Wings fans is Fedorov leaving via free agency, which none of the aforementioned stars ever did.
Probert was waived. McLain was traded. Cabrera is still here. Layne was traded.
None of them left on their own volition, and Detroit sports fans don’t like it when their athletes bid adieu willingly.
It’s time now to get over that with Fedorov. It’s not like the Red Wings stopped winning Stanley Cups after Fedorov left.
It’s time to put no. 91 up with 1, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12 and 19.
And I’m not a “retire his number!” kind of a guy. The case has to be compelling.
With Sergei Fedorov, it is.
For the Red Wings’ part, GM Ken Holland said in July that the team would consider honoring Fedorov with a number retirement ceremony.
The Red Wings have had four months since then to hash it out.
This morning, Sergei’s plaque is in the Hall in Toronto.
It’s time now.