It got me pretty excited when Sergei Fedorov started playing for the Blue Jackets. When I first learned that he had been traded to Columbus (which is a funny story in itself), I gathered a few friends and made the drive up to Nationwide Arena (lived in Athens then) to see his first appearance in the CBJ sweater. I obviously didn't have a #91 CBJ jersey at the time, so I dug up a Blue Jackets promotional tee shirt I had and used a red sharpie to put his name and number on the back.
While my maturity has generally raised me above the level of having 'favorite players', Sergei continues to be as close to that as I have. He always was, after all, going back to the early 90's. But why? Why have I developed an affinity for this Russian superstar? I never really sat back and thought about it. Do I really need a reason to favor a particular player? I wouldn't suppose so, but there certainly must be some cause.
I started watching Fedorov play in the early 1990's, not long after he defected from the USSR to play in the United States. I was a youngster living in a Detroit suburb and caught onto the game of hockey through several friends who followed the Wings. (One friend's dad was a particularly big fan and went so far as to coordinate a group of our friends into a floor hockey team that competed as the Blues- but I digress, that's a whole other story.) We regularly watched games together and played NHL '94 on Super Nintendo pretty habitually, so we were always current on the Red Wings roster. Fedorov played alongside the likes of Stevey-Y and Paul Coffey- three players we collectively thought were, well, awesome.
Maybe I admired Fedorov because he won not one, but two Selke awards, which is given to the league's best defensive forward, proving his all-around ability. He also won the Hart trophy for league MVP, and the Pearson award, which is basically MVP of the regular season. Even this season he's playing both sides of the puck for the Jackets.
Off the ice, I couldn't help but admire (or maybe envy) Fedorov's marriage to Anna Kournikova, and has been seen dating Tara Reid- both celebrities I once fancied as an adolescent. Talk about living the dream, sheesh.
Those may all be good-enough reasons to favor #91, but it's not the greatest reason.
Back when I lived up north, my friends and I one rainy day decided to write letters (by hand, of course. I remember the lined paper) to our favorite sports stars. Some wrote to Cecil Fielder of the Detroit Tigers, others may have written to Barry Sanders, rushing extraordinaire of the Detroit Lions. I wrote to Sergei in a letter that probably looked just like you'd think:
"Dear Sergei, You're my #1 favorite hockey player on my favorite team. I watch all your games and think you're really cool..."Enclosed was a 1994 Upper Deck hockey trading card and a self-addresed stamped envelope. I asked Fedorov to autograph the card and kindly mail it back to me. I selected a particular card that had him dressed in an Upper Deck Rookie Team jersey, which I'm sure wasn't the best card of him I had, but I doubted that I would ever get the card back and I wasn't about to throw away an especially good one.
Off the letter went in what I thought was a futile effort to reach out to my favorite athlete. Even at that age I was aware that getting any response was a long shot- but that same inexperience allowed me stay hopeful.
It was only a few weeks later that my parents brought a piece of mail to my attention. I couldn't believe my eyes:
I have cherished this card since I found it in my hand-written return envelope over a decade ago. I have always kept it under plastic (except this one time to scan it), never to gum-up the sharpie. Over the years, I have been told that this card probably wasn't signed by him, and since I didn't witness it being autographed, that some nobody at the Red Wings organization may have done it, and so forth. I don't care. I'll always believe that this is the real deal- it means too much to me to ever doubt it.
Getting that card back in the mail was one of those childhood moments that I'll carry on forever. For my life, it has been a moment of innocence for professional sports that have become so littered with the controversies of gambling, steroids and violent crime that I'm conscious of today. Even if it's only in my mind, I like to relish in the imaginary world where pro sports are purely about the game and nothing more- no contracts, no crime, and the athletes play their hearts out to win games for their fans.
Whether he knew it or not at the time, a few strokes of sharpie created a lifelong fan. Thank you Sergei for taking the time to drop that card back in the mail- it did and still does mean a lot to me.