Ice Hockey: Russian conquest that is the toast of Washington
Saturday 12 April 2008
Sport, like life, moves in long slow circles. Back in the late 1980s, as this newspaper's first correspondent in Moscow, I used to watch Sergei Fedorov play ice hockey for the legendary CSKA, the Central Army Sports Club. He was a raw kid, just starting his career with what may have been the greatest hockey team ever assembled. Now, two decades later, in the capital of what used to be the Soviet Union's mortal foe, I am watching him again, a veteran superstar girding up for a last epic campaign, this time in the colours of the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League.
Washington, famously, is not a sports town – "First in war, first in peace and last in the American League" was how a wit once summed up the distinguishing features of the place. In the NFL, the once dominant Redskins are living off memories. The basketball Wizards don't even have memories. True, the city has finally regained a Major League Baseball franchise, and spent $600m (£304.4m) on a spanking new marble-and-glass stadium with gorgeous views over the Capitol and downtown DC. But the Nationals have lost seven straight games; the bloom is already off that particular romance. Not so, however, the Capitals.
In late November 2007 the Caps, despite boasting in their ranks Alexander Ovechkin, the most exciting young player in the NHL, were bottom of the league. In desperation, they sacked the coach, traded for a few new players, including Fedorov – and bingo. In surely one of the most astounding late season comebacks by any team in any sport, they won 11 of their last 12 games to top their division and emerge as fancied outsiders for the Stanley Cup, the NHL's equivalent of the baseball World Series. Ovechkin ended the season with 65 goals, the most in NHL history for a left wing, and is set to become the first Russian to win the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league's most valuable player, since... you've guessed, one Sergei Fedorov in 1994.
And it is not only Washington that has been captivated by the fairy tale. The Caps are the hottest hockey story in Canada, the spiritual home of the sport if anywhere is. In Russia (inevitably, given there are four Russians on the team) it has been the same. "Washington's Cinderella" was the headline on the front page story in the Sovietskiy Sport newspaper the other day, after the historic comeback was complete.
Thus does sport come full circle. The names on that CSKA roster in those far-off days of 1988-89, when Mikhail Gorbachev ran the Kremlin and perestroika was still the rage – names like Igor Larionov, Pavel Bure, Slava Fetisov, Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov and of course Fedorov – are to hockey fans what Brazil's 1970 World Cup winners are to connoisseurs of football.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, all found their way to America, most to the Detroit Red Wings, the NHL equivalent of the New York Yankees. Fedorov defected to the US in 1990 and won three Stanley Cups with the Red Wings, and also starred in the gossip columns thanks to his liaison with the tennis pin-up Anna Kournikova. In 2003 he left Detroit after an acrimonious contract dispute, moving to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and then to the obscure Columbus Blue Jackets. His career, it seemed, was ending with a whimper. After the Caps' late-season heroics, to which he contributed more than his share, he may go out with a thunderclap.
With their large Russian contingent, the Caps have replaced the Red Wings as the "little Moscow" of the NHL. Most of the attention, with good reason, has gone to Ovechkin, just 22 but already considered by many the best player in hockey. His power, his blinding skills, his willingness to take bone-crunching hits on behalf of the team – not to mention a gap toothed grin and a lilting Russian accent – have made him a cult figure in this usually sports-indifferent city. But for anyone lucky enough to have watched the old CSKA in their pomp, the sentimental favourite must be Fedorov.
Last night the Capitals played game one of the first round of the the play-offs, against the Philadelphia Flyers. All may yet end in anticlimax. But right now this may be the most spectacular Russian capture of a foreign capital since Berlin 1945. And unlike then, the locals are loving every minute of it.
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