Viacheslav Fetisov was almost as happy to get out of New Jersey 21/2 months ago as he was to leave the Soviet Union in 1989.
"It was one of the only things they did right for me," Fetisov said of the April 3 trade that sent him from the Devils to the Detroit Red Wings. "They almost buried me out there. Here, I'm a reborn hockey player."Now the reborn Fetisov has a chance to help the Red Wings bury the Devils, who open the Stanley Cup finals Saturday night in Detroit.
Fetisov, whose 1989 signing with New Jersey began the influx of Soviet players into the NHL, went into the league reputedly as the world's best defenseman. In five-plus seasons with New Jersey, however, he scored only 19 goals.
Devils fans felt cheated because, to them, Fetisov wasn't as good as advertised. And Fetisov felt cheated because he thought the Devils kept him from being as creative as he was during his years captaining the powerful Central Red Army team.
"There have always been two types of hockey in the world - defensive and offensive," said Fetisov, who rarely played this season for the Devils. "In New Jersey, it was always defensive, always waiting, never creating."
Then he came to Detroit, where he again has become an important contributor.
Counting the playoffs, he has three goals and 16 assists in 28 games with the Red Wings, who play good defense but also emphasize the attack.
"We play spectacular hockey, creative, lots of speed," said Fetisov, who turned 37 just after the trade. "It reminds me of what I played in the Soviet Union. It's fun."
How much fun Fetisov and the Red Wings have in the finals will depend upon their effectiveness against the Devils' acclaimed neutral-zone trap. New Jersey likes to jam the center-ice area, a tactic designed to keep good puck-carriers like Fetisov from building speed into the offensive zone.
"I can help this team," Fetisov said. "In the Soviet Union, I played against every system in hockey."
Three other Russians - Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Vyacheslav Kozlov - also play for the Red Wings.
"When I joined the Red Army in 1986, Slava and Sergei Makharov were my heroes. I had a really golden chance . . . and now I have another," said Fedorov, who has become one of the NHL's top Russian imports. "Slava is playing like a 25-year-old again. He's always been a leader."
Fetisov gained instant respect in the Detroit dressing room. He enhanced his reputation as a leader during the playoff round against Chicago, when he coaxed Fedorov to play with a slightly injured shoulder.
"You have to listen to him," Shawn Burr said. "Slava probably has more hardware than anyone in the league, when you count all the Olympic and world championship medals."
Another new teammate is defenseman Mike Ramsey, who played on the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that defeated Fetisov's Soviet club in the "Miracle on Ice." Fetisov then led the Soviets to gold medals in 1984 and 1988.
"We joked about it," Ramsey said. "Someone asked him, `How many medals you got, 20 golds?' And I said, `No, he's got 19 golds and one silver.' "
Early in his career, Fetisov was called the Russian Bobby Orr. "Life is so ironic sometimes," Fetisov said. "I played against Ramsey in 1980. I competed against Coffey through the ages. My best American friend is Doug Brown. And now we're all on the same team.
"All I can ask now is to win the Cup."