Welcome to NHL99, The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re rating 100 gamers however calling it 99 as a result of everyone knows who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we now have to determine. Every Monday by Saturday till February we’ll unveil new members of the listing.

The skates beat the participant to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

If you have been on the fence with regard to their energy, or if you happen to have been unaware, that ought to function appropriate proof. Sergei Fedorov — the sublimely gifted trailblazer, possessor of a mix of talent, substance and star high quality past uncommon and, in steakhouse phrases, nearer to “blue” — needed to play 17 further years and wait three extra earlier than the Hall referred to as him again.

Those are the foundations for gamers, and they’re largely unflinching. Equipment, although? The Hall will get it when it desires it, particularly from Stanley Cup champions. And in 1997, after Fedorov’s Detroit Red Wings received their first Cup since 1955, the Hall’s curators made their collective choice; they set their sights on his white Nike prototypes.

In the primary season he wore them — the one one for that individual mannequin, which was by no means extensively obtainable however Nike’s first, flashiest swing at constructing a hockey foothold — Fedorov led the ’97 Wings in postseason factors, with 20 in 20 video games, en path to successful the Stanley Cup.

There was greatness behind him; by the summer time of 1997, he’d received the 1994 Hart Trophy, a pair of Selkes and put up two 100-point seasons. Wayne Gretzky, in that stretch, referred to as him “the best player in the game,” and given the context, the label match; Gretzky had lapped the sector, however his peak had handed. Mario Lemieux was on the verge of taking a well being sabbatical. Eric Lindros might’ve staked a declare, however his sport wasn’t almost as absolutely fashioned as Fedorov’s.

There was greatness forward — Fedorov and the Wings would win the Cup once more, and he’d proceed to construct his rep as a one-of-one expertise — and drama, too. Contract disputes in Detroit opened a rift that has but to shut. Stints with Anaheim and Columbus have been uneven of their finest moments. By the time he landed with Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals in certainly one of their early incarnations, Fedorov was extra of a pacesetter than a difference-maker, the higher a part of a decade faraway from his ultimate All-Star Game.

If you have been of a specific demographic, although — if you happen to have been an individual who cared about Russian gamers’ spot in NHL historical past, or an individual who got here of age in the course of the mid-’90s, or each — it was unimaginable to look at Fedorov, even in his winter, and never bear in mind. Who might neglect him?

“Fedorov is the one a lot of us look to,” Sergei Gonchar, a five-time All-Star defenseman, instructed The Athletic. He’s 5 years youthful, one of many first gamers to stroll by the doorways Fedorov and different Russian stars started opening within the late Nineteen Eighties and a Hall of Fame candidate in his personal proper. To Gonchar, although, Fedorov stands alone, which is why Fedorov is No. 33 on our listing of the best NHL gamers of the trendy period.

“(Fedorov) proved a Russian could come to the NHL and be the best player. He was the first to do it. If you’re talking about the all-time Russians, of course you have Alex and (Evgeni Malkin), but Fedorov was first to be recognized as the NHL’s best player and be a Russian, and that means a lot to many of us,” Gonchar stated.

“He could do everything. He was the best forward, could run a power play, was great at penalty kill and two-way — he could even play defense; I saw him do it, and he might have been the best defenseman if he played only that position. He had so much talent you couldn’t believe it.”

Lots of gamers have expertise, although. Fedorov had expertise and swagger — and Nike knew it.

Mike Rupp knew it, too. He’s an analyst for NHL Network now, eight years out from his 11-season, 610-game profession and 19 from his Stanley Cup-clinching aim for the Devils.

In 1997-98, Rupp was only a first-year OHL participant. The Cleveland native was coming into his personal with the Erie Otters; he’d be the No. 9 choose within the NHL Draft by the summer time.

He additionally, like loads of his friends, had became a Nike hockey partisan. To blame? Guess who. In 1996-97, as a freshman at Cleveland’s St. Edward High School, Rupp had snagged a detachable gold strap designed for basketball sneakers and used it to show his customary black skates right into a pair of “Nikes.” He’d seen these Hall of Fame-bound prototypes, in spite of everything.

“It was my nod,” Rupp instructed The Athletic. “This is my Fedorov moment, right? When I was turning at certain angles, I was probably losing an edge because (the strap) made my skates wider, but I didn’t give a s—. I was wearing ’em.”

Rupp’s arrival in Erie coincided with Nike’s first widespread “Fedorov” skate release. The Zoom Air Accel Elite got here in white, nevertheless it was no prototype. We’re speaking a number of colorways. An inline mannequin. A design that seemed a little bit extra intentional, and rather less like somebody slapped a purple swoosh onto a pair of Bauers. Flash. Style factors.

The Zoom Air release was the tentpole of Nike’s hockey technique. The largest title in sportswear, then and now, had acquired Bauer Hockey in 1995 for $395 million. Those have been increase occasions for the game within the United States, regardless of the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95. League revenues have been up, thanks partly to a 600 p.c enhance in merchandise gross sales, and optimism was working excessive. TV scores weren’t nice — a 1.8 common on ESPN in 1993-94, in line with an notorious Sports Illustrated cowl story that in any other case gassed up the league to a wild diploma, was low sufficient to qualify as “minuscule.” With the good thing about hindsight, that ought to’ve rang some alarm bells. It didn’t, although, and a yr later, Nike had positioned its personal significant guess. The overarching aim was to take Nike from American sneaker firm to a world sports activities behemoth. Hockey was a part of the plan.

And in hockey, Fedorov led the way in which. “We hadn’t necessarily planned to go to Russia and make Russia a key market for Nike, but the fact that he was Russian and all the history with Canada Cups and U.S.-Russian Olympics, the thought was he’d be a great asset,” Joe McCarthy, the top of Nike’s international promoting from 1993-97, told The Sporting News in 2015.

Still, he had firm. Jeremy Roenick and Mats Sundin, amongst others, confirmed up in a TV advert marketing campaign. If you’re a hockey fan over 35 — or when you have one in your life — you’re in all probability acquainted. The premise for a number of the Fedorov-centric spots was that he’d chased goalies out of the NHL. Because of him, they have been caught mopping elevator atriums and working the register at Burgerama, raging in opposition to “Mr. Long-Haired Russian Freak Boy, skating around in his fancy Nike skates” as a younger Rob McElhenney watched in silence.

Another featured Fedorov taking up a full roster by himself. Plus a number of further goalies. Plus a pair of determine skaters. Plus a Zamboni.

The implication was easy sufficient; Fedorov was a brand new, trendy model of hockey participant. Nike made a brand new, trendy model of skates.

So with all that in thoughts, again in Erie, Rupp’s request was equal components easy and predictable. He needed a pair of the Fedorovs. He joked that he knew the selection would imply “five or six more fights” that season. He didn’t care.

Rupp considered the design — bringing white-dominant skates to hockey for, primarily, the primary time for the reason that California Golden Seals’ ill-fated experiment within the early Seventies — as a logical development. There was a sure mid-90s “look,” he stated, that had taken maintain; CCM Tacks with some added white plastic on the bottom. An Easton Z-bubble stick. Maybe some shade within the gloves.

“Mike Modano had a little bit of the look,” Rupp stated, “but Fedorov took it to another level.”

The side-eye from one of many Otters’ trainers, although, was sufficient to vary his thoughts. Rupp’s request was met with the common signal for “I dunno about that, buddy.”

The approach Rupp remembers his personal response in 2022? “Maybe you’re right. I’ll go work on my toe drags and get back to you.” Rupp was skillsy sufficient to have a 32-goal OHL season and stick within the NHL for greater than a decade. White skates, although? For a 6-foot-5 bruiser? Hold the cellphone.

“If you had the guts to wear those,” Rupp stated, “you had to be a certain type of a player. I was a first-round pick. I was a player. I just wasn’t that type of player.”

Erie teammate Tim Connolly, alternatively, “was a guy that probably could get away with wearing them because he was so, so skilled and so, so filthy,” Rupp stated. He wore the Fedorovs for “about a week.”

Connolly joined Rupp on one other squad: Guys who appreciated the look however, for one cause or one other, couldn’t fairly make it stick. If Fedorov-caliber talent was the requirement for bucking one of the crucial weird bits of standard knowledge in a sport full of them, it’s a miracle that Nike offered various pairs.

Rupp scratched his itch elsewhere. Once he made it to the NHL in 2003, as an alternative of signing an endorsement take care of one other model, he wore a Nike helmet. For free.

“When you’re coming into the league, and you don’t know how long it’s gonna last or how long you’re gonna play, if you get offered five grand or 10 grand to wear a helmet — I was saying no,” Rupp stated. “That’s how much I wanted to wear Nike.”

And it was largely due to one man.

“Those white Fedorovs — just Sergei Fedorov in general — changed the cool factor in hockey,” Rupp stated. “And Nike was the cool factor.”

As an idea, “the cool factor” is timeless. The utility, although, generally is a shifting goal. We know now that Nike, in some respects, didn’t hit it; the worth level was obscene, even relative to different premium skates.

Beyond that, operate didn’t comply with kind; the hard-plastic, black molding alongside the again, in line with individuals who wore them, took ceaselessly to suitably break in, and by the point that occurred, different components of the boot have been breaking down. Any kind of scuff on the cap, from pucks, boards or different skates, got here by loud and clear.

Mix in an inevitable comedown from that mid-’90s optimism, built-in resistance from the game itself — once more, first-round picks didn’t really feel certified to put on the skates — and also you’ll see how Nike Hockey’s destiny was in all probability sealed. By coaching camp 1999, they’d terminated their take care of Fedorov. He wasn’t all that upset, telling reporters that the corporate had tried to place him in a brand new skate mannequin forward of the ’99 playoffs. That wasn’t going to work. Nike held on to its Bauer belongings for 9 years earlier than promoting to a personal fairness agency for $200 million. Neither model, because it seems, wanted the opposite all that a lot; Nike achieved international domination with out hockey, and Bauer stays one of many largest names within the sport.

Through all of it, the Air Accel Elites nonetheless occupy cultural area; posting a photograph of them is a fast, straightforward approach for social media engagement. It looks like everyone loves the “Fedorovs,” regardless of almost no one truly carrying them. Credit nostalgia. Credit design.

Most of all, credit score the participant. Fedorov’s legacy is singular and safe, whether or not or not we see one other NHL star in white skates. It lives in Russian stars like Ovechkin. It lives in gamers who fuse substance with showmanship, like Jack Hughes or Matthew Tkachuk. It lives in followers who ache for one thing totally different.

And it lives on this planet’s biggest hockey museum. Odds are, the white Nike prototypes will sometime cycle out of show. Fedorov, although, is there ceaselessly.

Screenshot 2022 12 19 at 1.07.52 PM

The Athletic‘s Rob Rossi contributed to this story.

(Top picture: Tom Pidgeon / Getty Images)

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