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Wednesday, January 23
Position switch a sign of greatness, not disrespect

By Mike Heika
Special to

With all apologies to Viktor Fedorov, his son is a darn fine defenseman.

Scotty Bowman
This season isn't the first time Scotty Bowman has moved a forward back to defense.
And maybe that's why it's not so strange that Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman has been experimenting with an All-Star center on the blue line.

The simple fact is Detroit needs defensemen, Sergei Fedorov is a talented player and we're only talking 10 or 15 games out of an 82-game season here. Bowman has tried Fedorov out on defense for a couple of weeks, prompting Fedorov's dad to rip into the experiment recently.

"I believe this is the latest display of disrespect to my son by his coach and general manager," Fedorov is quoted as saying in the Russian newspaper Sport-Express.

But what the elder Fedorov doesn't understand is this actually is a show of respect by Bowman. He moved Fedorov because he knows that it takes a special player to be able to make the transition. He moved Fedorov because he knew no other player on the team could fill the role he needed.

Just ask Stars GM Bob Gainey about the switch. Bowman used to experiment with Gainey as a defenseman when the two were together with the 1970s Montreal Canadiens.

"We didn't see it as a demotion, we saw it as a way to help our team," said Gainey, a Hall-of-Famer. "I had been a defenseman when I was 18 or 19, so the switch wasn't that big of a deal for me. But even with Fedorov, he's done it before and I don't think it impairs his ability to move back to the center position."

That was obvious this week when Bowman inserted a healthy Fredrik Olausson back on defense and moved Fedorov to center on a line with Luc Robitaille and Igor Larionov. It wasn't because of Viktor Fedorov's complaints, but rather that's what best for the team right now.

"You try things and see how they work," Bowman said. "That happens all the time."

Happily for Detroit, the Fedorov move worked very well. He was paired with Chris Chelios, he added a puck-moving dimension to the pair and he wasn't abused by physical opponents. The Stars went after Fedorov with a hard forecheck in a 3-2 Red Wings loss Jan. 16 and Fedorov suffered a bruised knee that seemed to slow him that night. Other than that, the team responded well to the Fedorov experiment as it sailed along in a 10-2-2 run.

"I don't mind at all," Fedorov said. "I don't know how long it goes, but it isn't a bad experience. You see things differently, you help the team differently."

Gainey said his time on the blue line reminded him just what defensemen are thinking.

"That allows you to do more when you play the forward position," he said. "You have a better idea of what to expect from the defenseman."

Now, fiddling with a player and his position definitely is a chancy thing. If you do it over and over, the player might end up not being good as a forward or a defenseman -- and Bowman seemed to recognize that with Mathieu Dandenault. He has been allowing Dandenault -- a swing player for the past four seasons -- to stay at one position for periods of a month or more now. But the occasional move can end up being a good thing, especially if the Red Wings never get that puck-moving defenseman Bowman would like to have.

At the very least, the Fedorov switch allowed Bowman to see what Pavel Datsyuk could do with more time at center ice -- and that will make the Red Wings a deeper team.

Fedorov was reminded that the last time he played defense was late in the season in 1997, and he followed that experiment by having one of his finest playoff seasons with 8 goals and 12 assists en route to helping the Red Wings to their first Stanley Cup. He called it at the time, "the best hockey I have ever played."

"I'm glad you reminded me of that," he said. "That was a tough year and sometimes you need a change."

Or sometimes, your team just needs a change.

Either way, the experiment is hardly disrespectful. Sure, the move will probably hurt Fedorov's overall numbers, but he's under contract for another season and won't become an unrestricted free agent until 2003. So trading in a few numbers now for the chance at a championship seems a pretty good deal.

Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News is a regular contributor to

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