Gave: If Fedorov’s No. 91 isn’t retired, Wings should honor Russian Five

Sergei Fedorov was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame recently, and he’s a lock to join former Red Wings teammate Nicklas Lidstrom this spring as a first-ballot inductee in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

But can he complete the hat trick of high honors by seeing his No. 91 raised to the rafters at Joe Louis Arena with those of the other greatest players in franchise history? Up there with Howe and Lindsay, Yzerman and Lidstrom?

That debate warmed up when Fedorov addressed the possibility after last Thursday’s MSHOF induction ceremony at the Motor City Casino. He said it would be a "huge honor" but didn’t know what to expect.

To be sure, it’s a question worth considering. Fedorov is the lone Red Wings Hart Trophy winner as the NHL’s MVP since Gordie Howe won the last of his six Hart Trophies in 1963. One of the world’s most dynamic offensive players in his prime who could bring fans out of their seats, Fedorov was also a two-time Selke Trophy winner as the league’s best defensive player — a trait that inspired coaches like Scotty Bowman to use Fedorov on the blue line.

Fedorov, with Yzerman and Lidstrom, formed the foundation of a team that won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1997-98, then again in 2002. Fedorov’s playoff statistics were outstanding, and as a member of the Russian Five — one of the most celebrated five-man units in hockey history — he helped establish Detroit as the puck-possession, puck-control team that has been a franchise trademark ever since.

But raise No. 91 to the rafters? Not likely.

Not as long as the Ilitch family owns the Detroit Red Wings.

The Ilitches love winning, love having their names engraved on that big silver trophy every bit as much as the players do. And they know well how important Fedorov and his Russian comrades were to helping Detroit end a 42-year Stanley Cup drought. Mike Ilitch spent considerably while orchestrating the covert activities that brought Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Kozlov to Detroit against the will of the crumbling Soviet Union. And the owner didn’t grumble, at least publicly, when he felt Bowman overpaid in trades to acquire Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov.

Had Fedorov stayed in Detroit and played his entire career for the Red Wings, there would be no need for this discussion. Retiring his number would be a slam-dunk. But he didn’t, and above all else, the Ilitches value loyalty. Fedorov compromised himself twice in that regard, first flirting with the Carolina Hurricanes in 1998 and forcing the Ilitches to honor a front-loaded, $38 million contract that called for Fedorov to be paid $28 million of that within a few months of signing the deal. He might have been forgiven for that; it was business, after all, and the Ilitches are no strangers to playing fiscal hardball.

In 2003, however, Fedorov was labeled an ingrate when he rejected deals for $50 million over five years and $40 million over four years to sign a deal with the Anaheim Ducks. He had three unremarkable years in Southern California, where he became the first Russian player and fifth European to reach 1,000 points. He later played for Columbus and Washington. And each time he visited Joe Louis Arena in an opposing uniform, he was booed mercilessly.

That was the sound of betrayal, hardly a ringing endorsement to honor a player by raising his number to the rafters.

But here’s something worth considering: How about hanging a banner with all the numbers of the Russian Five, since they were such critical component to the modern history of Detroit hockey? Fedorov’s 91 and Vladimir Konstantinov’s 16 have been out of service since the end of that era. Raise all those numbers to honor them, but don’t retire them. Keep them in play, so Justin Abdelkader can keep Igor Larionov’s No. 8; so Pavel Datsyuk can keep Slava Kozlov’s No. 13; so Brendan Smith can keep Slava Fetisov’s No. 2. And let anyone else who comes along wear 16 and 91, if they prefer.

Not retired, but honored in the best sense of the word in sports.

Then everybody wins. Fedorov, 45, now the general manager of his former Central Red Army club in Moscow, still considers Detroit his home. Larionov lives in suburban Detroit, and as a player agent he is a frequent visitor at The Joe. So is Konstantinov, often seen getting around with the aid of a walker since the limo accident that ended a cherished career. Fetisov, a senator in Russia’s Parliament, and Kozlov, who said he planned to retire to Atlanta to be near his daughters when his playing career ended, are occasional visitors to Detroit.

It would only be right for them to be able to look up to the rafters and see for themselves how grateful we are for what they did for this city.