Ice Hockey: Russian conquest that is the toast of Washington

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.

Brian Viner is away

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

Day In a Page

A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works