The conversation really started to pick up steam late last week, when the Detroit Red Wings paid the highest honor to Nick Lidstrom by retiring his number.
Lidstrom’s No. 5 joined the immortals of the franchise — Gordie Howe’s No. 9, Steve Yzerman’s No. 19, Ted Lindsay’s No. 7, Terry Sawchuck’s No. 1, Alex Delvecchio’s No. 10 and Sid Abel’s No. 12 — in the rafters at Joe Louis Arena.
It was a no-brainer for the Red Wings to retire Lidstrom’s number. He’s their best defenseman ever and one of the NHL’s all-time greats.
What isn’t a definitive no-brainer, however, is which Red Wings player will be next to get his number retired.
That’s the question being bandied about now, and when I give my answer, most people cringe.
I think Sergei Fedorov’s No. 91 should be next.
With all due respect to Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Red Kelly and Norm Ullman — all of whom deserve to have their numbers eventually hoisted to the rafters — Fedorov has earned the honor to be next.
Sadly, it probably won’t happen because on July 19, 2003, after 13 years in Detroit, Fedorov signed with Anaheim as a free agent.
From that moment on, many labeled him a traitor — a man who became a turncoat to the fans, the city and the organization.
Fedorov’s perceived betrayal still stings because he essentially signed with Anaheim for the same money the Red Wings offered him.
There are always two sides to every story, however.
Yes, the Wings offered Fedorov a four-year, $40 million deal. But according to Fedorov, it came with an undisclosed catch that in essence sent him packing for the Ducks.
Fedorov claims he wasn’t made aware it was a sign-it-now-or-else offer and that the Wings immediately pulled it off the table when he asked for time to think about it. Fedorov further asserts that he was going to sign the contract after a brief interlude to ponder it.
However it went down, it was a mistake for Fedorov to leave the Wings. And deep down, he knows it.
"Unfortunately, that’s a professional hockey life," Fedorov said when he was in Detroit for the Alumni Showdown in December. "I am the one who has to be responsible for everything."
Fans loved him or hated him. The Wings brass were dazzled by his talent, but were also frustrated by it. And there were the endless comparisons to Yzerman, in which Fedorov always finished second.
Yet, Fedorov was a unique two-way talent who thrived in every on-ice situation and was an integral part of three Stanley Cups (1997, 1998 and 2002) in Detroit.
Statistically, retiring his number shouldn’t even be questioned. He ranks fourth in Wings history in goals (400), fifth in assists (554), fifth in total points (954), and his plus-276 ranks second only to Lidstrom’s 450.
All Red Wing players who rank higher than Fedorov in these statistics already have their numbers retired by the team.
When you throw in his playoffs numbers — 50 goals (11 game-winners), 113 assists and plus-38 in 162 games played — how can you keep his number out of the rafters?
Then there’s the list of personal awards: two Selke trophies as the league’s best defensive forward (1994 and 1996); the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP (1994); the Lester B. Pearson Award as the NHLPA’s most-outstanding player (1994); perennial All-Star (1992, 1994, 1996, 2001, 2002, 2003).
When Fedorov was announced to the crowd at Comerica Park before the Alumni Showdown, Detroit fans cheered him. He was extremely pleased and relieved by the ovation.
"I wasn’t sure how it was going to be," Fedorov said at the time. "Honestly, I don’t know why I thought that, but I’m being honest with you guys. I was ready for anything."
He’d certainly be ready for another big ovation, this time at Joe Louis. The Red Wings should let bygones be bygones and send his No. 91 to the rafters in front of a packed house.