Boxing Day can signify a number of different things. If you’re Canadian, it’s a day to rest up from overindulging over the holidays or, if you’re brave, to make your way to shopping centres to cash in on brick and mortar sales. If you’re American, it’s just another day, and you’re probably Googling Boxing Day right now. For others, its symbolizes the beginning of the World Juniors tournament, a special annual event where your friends debate which teenage player they’ve never heard of, prior to last week, is the better fit for Canada’s top line. But if you’re Sergei Fedorov, December 26th will always be synonymous with the time you enshrined yourself into the hockey history record books.
When the Detroit Red Wings emerged from their Christmas respite twenty years ago today, they were 18-11-6 and set to host the Capitals in their first game back. While the team surely enjoyed the three days off to celebrate and relax with family and friends, there were probably more than a few players who were eager to return to the ice. Among them was Sergei Fedorov.
The speedy Russian had a sluggish start to the 1996-97 season, but was picking up steam as the holidays approached. After managing just 5 goals in his first 25 games, Fedorov scored 7 times in Detroit’s 10 contests leading up the Christmas break. Although it was clear he was regaining his scoring touch, no one could have predicted the breakout he would have when the NHL resumed operations on Boxing Day.
Fedorov accomplished something that a Red Wings player hadn’t done in over fifty years; he scored 5 goals in a game. The last time it had happened, Syd Howe filled the net 6 times as he powered the Wings to a convincing 12-2 victory over the Rangers on February 3, 1944.
Since breaking into the league in 1990-91, Fedorov wasn’t exactly known for scoring in bunches. Although he had logged 33 career multi-goal performances leading up to December 26, 1996, he didn’t record his first NHL hat trick until the tail end of his fourth season, and the only other time he potted three or more goals was when he put four past Los Angeles on February 12, 1995.
But Fedorov’s Boxing Day performance was more significant than simply adding his name to the all-time franchise record book. It marked the first time in NHL history that a player scored all five goals in his team’s victory.
What’s astonishing about that game was that every goal he scored was textbook. Sometimes when players are gifted with a massive offensive outing, they are on the receiving end of some lucky bounces, but in Fedorov’s case that night, every goal he scored was highlight reel worthy. Whether he was the trigger man on some silky passing between Igor Larionov and Vladimir Konstantinov or making it happen by himself on a breakaway, Fedorov was dialled in.
Simply put, he put the team on his back that night. Not only did he tie the game to force overtime, but after receiving another elegant dish from Konstantinov halfway through the extra frame, he ripped a wrist shot past Capitals goaltender Jim Carey to secure the Red Wings victory.
Despite his unquestionable heroics, Fedorov was surprisingly humble about what had transpired that game. In a story that was published in the Los Angeles Times, Fedorov was quoted as trying to keep things in perspective. “In Russia, my coach would always say, ‘What you did tonight is part of history. Let’s go out and practice in the morning’…I don’t want to spoil it by talking all about it,” he said.
Although there were no more games like that for Fedorov that season, the best was still to come. He’d pick up 20 points in the postseason, but more importantly, Detroit went on to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1955. They would repeat the achievement the next year, with Fedorov serving, once again, as a driving force. He’d win a third championship with the Red Wings in 2002 before rounding out his career in Anaheim, Columbus, and Washington.
Since Fedorov lit the lamp five times against the Capitals, twenty years ago today, there have been only two other players who have accomplished the feat. Marion Gaborik did it in 2007 with the Minnesota Wild, and, as any Red Wings fan who is reading this already knows, Johan Franzen scored five times as Detroit beat the Senators 7-5 on February 2, 2011.
It’s incredibly difficult to score five times in today’s game. Despite the calibre of talent that’s circulated through the league since 1996, we have yet to see another offensive tour de force performance like this from a bona fide NHL star. Put it this way, if Auston Matthews couldn’t score five goals in his debut, what chance does the rest of the league have?