The new guy in the hot seat

Sergei Fyodorov assumes challenge to rebuild once mighty CSKA

22.08.2012
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Fyodorov (pictured) accompanied CSKA Moscow to their training camp in the Swiss town of Sursee, which included four games in five days against Swiss league clubs. Photo: Szymon Szemberg

SURSEE – If there has ever been a hot seat in European hockey, 42-year old Sergei Fyodorov is the one sitting in it. As the new General Manager of CSKA Moscow, it is his job to lead the iconic club back to the glory years, years which brought 32 national titles and 20 European Cups.     Sergei Fyodorov is one of the most successful players of the modern era. He won three IIHF World Championships, three Stanley Cups with Detroit, one silver medal and one bronze in the three Olympics he played and one World Junior gold medal.
Fyodorov totaled 1179 points in 1248 NHL games and he became the first European to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player in 1993-94 when he amassed 120 points (56 goals and 64 assists) in 82 games. He was a very unusual combination of skill, speed, goal scoring and defensive prowess. For this Fyodorov was awarded twice (1994 and 1995) with the NHL’s Frank Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward.

But managerial experience? Fyodorov has none. After 26 seasons of professional hockey (18 in the NHL), Sergei Fyodorov retired last spring after a three-year stint with KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk. At about the same time, he was approached by CSKA Moscow – the club Fyodorov played for during the Soviet years – to become the General Manager of the club, now under the new ownership of Rosneft, Russia’s leading oil and gas company. After a short period of contemplating, the now 42-year-old accepted the offer, returning to live permanently in Moscow after having been away from the city for 22 years.

IIHF.com met Fyodorov in the picturesque Swiss town of Sursee where he was accompanying CSKA Moscow to their training camp which included four games in five days against Swiss league clubs.

CSKA’s pre-season started on July 11 and – after 54 days of camp – they will open the KHL season on September 5 against their local rival Spartak Moscow.

Sergei, you look in great shape. Could you still play?        I’d like to play. Could I? That’s the question. Fortunately I got an offer to become General Manager of CSKA Moscow and I say ‘fortunately’ as I had a back injury when I played for Metallurg Magnitogorsk and it didn’t allow me to play the way I still could. So yes, I would want to play, but from the health standpoint it wouldn’t be a wise thing to do. So now I have moved on.
One of the most frequent trivia questions in hockey is “Who was the first European player to win the NHL’s MVP honors”. Does it make you proud?

Today, this is all at the back of my mind. I am very busy with my current job, with the team. But looking back, it was good season. I thought I played well, I didn’t think I played that great. But I played a lot, 28-29 minutes per game as a forward, so I guess I must have had a good season.
Your line from the Soviet times, with Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny as wingers had an amazing future. Do you regret that you were not able to show the world how good you were together over a longer period of time?

It would have been great, but during that short period when we were growing up together we started to be aware of the other lifestyle at the same time when the old Soviet Union had problems. So we had different ideas in our heads. The NHL was closer to us than to the earlier Soviet stars and this is where we wanted to play. Yes, it was a pity that we couldn’t play together for five or ten years, but at the same time all of us live their own lives and we wanted to move on. But the time we spent together on the national team and CSKA were great times. (Editor’s note: Mogilny defected to the NHL in 1989, Fyodorov in 1990.). Since you played pro for 26 consecutive seasons and retired last spring, you have had no opportunity to gain managerial experience. What made you take this job, probably the most pressure-filled in the KHL? Probably my understanding what needs to be done with CSKA Moscow, primarily with the KHL team. So from the hockey perspective, it was an easy decision to take this job. From the administrative side, it wasn’t easy. But I have good staff, good people around me and they help me a lot. To be honest, when I was first asked, I didn’t want the GM position. I wanted it more like a consultant. But people I listen to, my friends and people who understand what this club needs, convinced me to take charge. So eventually I agreed. I don’t want to do a half job, I want to work hundred percent and to have full responsibility. What are your short-term goals with CSKA?

To install discipline. Off-ice and on-ice discipline. Discipline always beats class. And to put together a group with good chemistry.

Tell us what your job description is. I oversee three programs, the professional KHL team, the development team in the junior league MHL and CSKA’s hockey school, with a staff of twelve coaches. I make the decisions about sports related matters. So this differs quite a lot from a traditional NHL GM job.

Yes, my job is much different from a traditional NHL GM job. My real title in Russian is not GM, but Head Manager of Human Resources and Sport. This is how our new owner Rosneft determined the job. But obviously, during the first weeks all the focus was on the KHL-team, to put a competitive group together for the upcoming season. But very shortly I was able also to focus on the junior team and the hockey school. Eventually, all three areas will get hundred percent attention. CSKA is the most successful club in Europe, winning 32 national titles and 20 European Cups. What is the pressure taking over a club like this?

I think everybody understands what it means to run a club like CSKA. The club you describe is the CSKA from the Soviet era. In the Russian era, the club hasn’t been as successful, not even close. So what we are talking about here is total rebuilding, from scratch. This is what we are trying to do. Pressure? Sure, but for me pressure is something good. It was good for me as a player, and it is good for this job too. It makes you think harder and work harder. All who like CSKA, dearly miss those successful years, all the cups and all the championships and everyone who works in this club understands that. We are only in our first year of rebuilding, but we want to install good habits immediately, habits which will help us get back to the top. What does it mean for the club and for you as GM that CSKA has been acquired by such a resourceful owner as Rosneft? Certainly, our hands are not tied any more. Financially we now have the means to compete, be more independent with our decisions, not only when it comes to recruitment of players but also things like team travel and overall team services. I want to add that although Rosneft financially is a very solid company, we are committed to spending wisely and we are watching every ruble we spend so it goes to the right cause. And this goes for all the three hockey areas which are under my supervision. Rosneft is committed to all of them, KHL team, junior team and hockey school. Considering the change in ownership and management, what is the goal for CSKA this season? I think Rosneft, and also us, expects CSKA to be among the top five teams in the KHL. It will not be easy the first year, but it is our goal. If we are among the top teams and we reach one or two rounds into the playoffs, it will be a very good result. Nothing can be built overnight. Our management staff is new, the coaching staff is new so this will take some time. But ultimately the goal is to become a championship team, not for one year or for two, but for many years to come. What worries us in the short term is the ice condition in our old arena. The ice tends to get soft and as our team is built on skill and skating and it will take away 20-30 percent from our performance if it’s in bad condition. But our owners are aware of it, we are trying to address this and in the long-term this clubs needs a new arena. Right now we are only able to do cosmetic changes in this outdated rink. So, one goal for CSKA is definitely to have a new arena in the future. Maybe in two, three years. What does it mean for CSKA to have been able to sign Alexander Radulov? First of all, to get Alexander, who has proved that he is the best player in Europe, was very fortunate for CSKA. What people maybe not realize is that Alexander was not really available on the market and to be honest, we didn’t work in this direction at all. But the moment he appeared on the market, we immediately started to discuss whether it would be possible for us to get him. As everybody now knows, we first managed to obtain his rights and later to sign him to a four-year deal and we are very happy about it. Alexander is a very special guy and a very special hockey player. It is our job to make him adjust well to a new city and to new teammates. Does CSKA follow the CBA negotiations between the NHL and the PA? Yes, we are observing. I wouldn’t say we are putting special attention to it, but we are following. If any player becomes available we may look at it, but we will not overspend and we will also have to fit any new player under the KHL salary cap. All hockey parties in Europe, including the KHL, are working together towards establishing a Pan-European hockey competition. If CSKA qualified, would you like the idea to play against top clubs from other countries for a European title? I am both hands up for it. I think this is very important. We played against the other best teams in Europe when I was with CSKA in the Soviet times. I think fans in Europe should be able to see a competition between the best clubs. For me it doesn’t matter how the structure of this competition is, the most important thing is that international competition provides unbelievable hockey. That everybody in Europe met in Barcelona last June to discuss this was a great thing. You were part of the Vancouver 2010 team. We are now less than two years to Sochi 2014. Your thoughts?

This will mean a lot to our country and obviously our hockey needs to be represented very well. I don’t necessarily see this as an opportunity for revenge for what happened in Vancouver 2010, but of course all Russians want our national team to do better. But it’s not only about hockey. The whole nation, including the president, is behind the games to make it the best Winter Olympics ever. But speaking as a hockey person, our national team will be one of the favorites and it needs to perform well and I am convinced that they have the potential to do so. The last World Championship showed what potential they have. The team is well managed and they have a good coach who knows in which direction to go and how to get the job done. SZYMON SZEMBERG     

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