It's hard for me not to like Sergei Federov.
Even though he is older than me by a few years, his eyes still sparkle—his excitement at still being relevant in this game is hard to miss.
At 39, Federov is nowhere near the oldest player in the NHL. But he is the most famous player in the league in that age group by far.
Back during his years under Scotty Bowman in Detroit, he was a part of a five-some that led the Red Wings to more success than almost any franchise in any decade of play in the NHL.
Slava Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov, Igor Larianov, and Federov were dubbed the 'Mighty Five.' They went on to compose the core of the Detroit Red Wings for the better part of a decade.
Tragedy struck the Red Wing team, as Konstantinov was traumatically injured following an automobile accident during celebrations in 1997 after a Cup win.
With the retirement of Scotty Bowman, followed soon after by his final 2002-2003 season with the Wings, Sergei would be traded to the Anaheim Ducks. Two seasons later he would journey to the Columbus Blue Jackets, and three years later an under-utilized Federov finally landed with Bruce Boudreau's Washington Capitals.
It is no secret that his days of out-shining opponents 82 games a season were behind him, but one had to wonder what drove a man who had achieved so much to continue striving despite approaching his early forties. The answer came in the form of a press conference after an unlikely goal this week that propelled the Capitals franchise and their young team to a second round playoff match against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Did Federov really know he could still make a difference, despite several years of sagging performances? You betcha. Federov's unique gift is his ability to summon strength far outside our expectations, to thrill hockey fans, stun fellow players, and perhaps most importantly, gift a bit of himself to us through hockey folklore.
Now many people may have missed his contributions last year, when Federov's goal put the Caps into the playoffs in an unforgettable victory over the Florida Panthers. But this goal sealed the deal for the Capitals in stunning fashion, allowing them to regroup and face their arch-nemesis the Pittsburgh Penguins for round two this week.
The talent level of the Washington Capitals is staggering. Sure, everyone knows the 'Great Eight', Alex Ovechkin, but there are others to name here too.
Alexander Semin, a temperamental artist-athlete who has been thrilling us with his sick goal-scoring antics, and who has challenged Ovechkin on a goals-per-game statistical level.
Nicklas Backstrom, the skilled second year Center who is as astoundingly strong on the puck as he is gifted at passing, sending pucks flying tape-to-tape to any of his cohorts, and whose upside must send chills down Crosby's spine.
And then there's Mike Green—who, if he ever reaches his true potential, will likely be the scoring-est defense man for likely as long as he continues to play the game.
With all of that talent, you might wonder why an aging Federov is even comfortable on such a team. The answer? With that overabundance of talent comes a paucity of self-control, consistency, and accomplishment.
Federov brings a certainty and knowledge of how to apply one's self and when to apply one's self. Simply put he is the ultimate in hockey mentor-ship to a bunch of future stars and Hall of Famers.
Without him, the Caps play 'well enough to win'. With him, they win—and there's a big difference.
It is quite possible that his accomplishments may not fully sink in during his days here with these young men, but it will be our duty to remind them as they follow a trail he helped blaze, exactly how much of a difference playing on a team with him has made on their character and maturity in just one short season.
There is much speculation as to whether Feds will return for a second full season with this organization. The salary cap and his own desire factor high up on the list of issues.
But yesterday in his press conference, Federov's eyes were a window into his hockey soul. If he could have done much more he undoubtedly would have, but his role is not as broad as it once was. It takes a true team to win Cups—although he clearly still has all the heart and will to do it all himself, he just doesn't have the energy.
But the measure of any hockey player is in his contribution, be it big or small. And what Federov brought to this game was a split-second decision and a sick wrist shot that beat the King at the moment where the Caps—and perhaps even Federov—needed it most.
To hear the humble Federov explain it, you were left wondering how any player—let alone one as talented as Federov—could have missed at all. But that was classic Feds. When asked if he felt anything personally he let us all see a glimpse of the personal pride that he so carefully hides, showing for just a second—about the same time it took to score the game-winner—exactly how much it still meant for him to show us he could still play like a champion.
I hope that this is not the end of the road for this worthy hockey player. If it is, we all will have been privileged to have seen first-hand what hockey greatness is all about. That torch will be passed on to the young guns.
But I would prefer it if for maybe just one more season he would linger in our minds and let us appreciate better his grace, wisdom, and hockey grit.