UKRAINIAN PRO HOCKEY UPDATE
by Ihor N. Stelmach
Federko's development parallels Blues' success
He doesn't make an elephant disappear or saw a lady in half. He doesn't tell a stranger how many bills he has in his wallet or pull a rabbit out of his hat. Yet in the realm of prestidigitation there is no more skillful performer - not Blackstone, not Doug Henning, not the Amazing Kreskin than the St. Louis Blues' Ukrainian magician, Bernie Federko.
The hockey stick is Federko's wand. And when he's inside the blueline, enemy goalies mesmerized by his sleight-of-hand would swear he wears a top hat and tails. Now that the Blues have established themselves as one of the NHL's top teams, Federko's light is no longer hidden under a bushel.
"Bernie is one of the game's premium quality centers," Blues' coach Red Berenson says.
Federko is a typical Jean Ratelle, Jean Beliveau, Stan Mikita type in that he's consistent and always among the Ieague's top 10 scorers. With 104 points (31 goals, 73 assists) last season, Federko became the first 100-point scorer in St. Louis history.
"He could score a helluva lot more goals - 50 for sure - if he weren't such a generous centermen," Berenson says. "He threads the needle with his passes."
"An assist is as gratifying to me as a goal, definitely," Federko says.
Even when the ratio is two or three assists to one goal, as has been the case the past two seasons, Federko nods affirmatively. Even then.
Not surprisingly for a magician, Federko's ice skills are deceptive. He doesn't appear to overpower defensemen and park in the slot the way, say, Phil Esposito used to. And he doesn't seem to be a fast skater.
"Bernie has deceiving speed," affirms Berenson. "He can open up and leave people behind him." Others cite Federko's deceiving strength.
"For one thing, I weigh 195 pounds," the six-foot Federko says. "I think some of the guidebooks still list me at 178. If the defensemen don't know who's coming on 'em, you can give them that little pushoff. I lift a few weights here and there. I don't bulk up, but I'm stronger than I think sometimes.
"As for speed, I don't look like I'm going fast, but I have quick acceleration. You can be the fastest skater in hockey, but if you can't control yourself, that speed isn't going to do you any good."
Although only 25, Federko brought four and a half years of NHL experience into this season. "Now I know the ins and outs," Federko says matter-of-factly. "After watching players like Jean Ratelle, and the things he does so well, I know ways you can cheat without getting caught."
The Blues' first-round choice (seventh overall) in the 1976 draft, Federko spent the first half of his initial season in Kansas City (CHL). Bernie and both his linemates were called up to the parent club in February and acquitted themselves admirably.
"This is the foundation of the team we're going to build," the Blues' then-coach Emile Francis said as the 1976-77 season ended and he turned his attention solely to front-office matters in an effort to revitalize a sinking franchise.
Federko was a disappointment for much of his first full NHL season, 1977-78. "I hurt my shoulder and knee at the start of the season, then tried to come back too soon," Bernie remembers.
"Leo Boivin was our coach, and he was from the old school. You sit and watch before you play. There were three centers ahead of me. When Barc (Plager - the next coach) took over, he believed in us and we got more ice time." Federko's line finished strong.
Fellow Ukrainian Wayne Babych was drafted in 1979 and placed opposite Sutter (Brian - left winger on Federko line), and suddenly Federko was centering the Blues' No. 1 line. "We ran into everybody's checking lines the second half of the season," Bernie recalls. Unfortunately, the Blues had little else going for them except Federko's line and finished with a dreadful record. Federko broke his left wrist with five games left and finished the season five points short of 100.
President-general manager Francis' rebuilding program began to pay dividends two seasons ago.
"We knew we had the talent, and we were learning to work with each other," Federko remembers. Blair Chapman came in, replacing Babych on our line and clicked early. Mike Zuke (the third Ukrainian in St. Louis) and Babych worked well together, and all of a sudden we had two scoring lines instead of one. More depth. If we got checked hard, another line came through."
Last year St. Louis ranked near the top of the NHL's overall standings, and nobody more thoroughly appreciates the Blues' success than Federko, who was with the club when it was a doormat.
"I used to go home and you didn't want to tell people who you played for," Bernie says. "You could finish in the top 10 scorers, but you were only the best of the worst. Now we've got nine or 10 guys who are scoring threats. In two years we've gone from second worst to: second best."
Off the ice, Federko likes music ("nothing heavy, no wild screaming") and wishes he could play an instrument. He's also a recent family man since his wife Bernadette presented him with their first child in March of last year.
In the clubhouse and in team-related activities, Federko is something of a wise-cracker and has been known to pull a practical joke or two in his day. "Sometimes it helps if there's tension in the air," he says.
Beneath this facade, though, he takes the game to heart - especially when things are not going well - and he has a tendency to fight the puck if he feels he's letting the team down. "In a slump your mind gets boggled," he admits. "It's all mental. You cant get down on yourself. You have to remind yourself you're doing the same things you've always done. You can't lose the confidence to try them any more and your adrenaline turn to lead.
"Eventually one of your shots will bounce off somebody's skate for a lucky goal and a little beam of light will flash into your brain: you can do it. During a slump, though, you try to stay loose to keep from losing your mind."
Berenson thinks Federko is underrated.
"For a centerman, he's very good with his feel along the boards digging the puck out," the Blues' coach says. "He's not a great practice player, but he is not a floater either. He's not afraid of hard work and has a good capacity for it.
"In games, he's effective no matter who his wings are. I can put Chapman, Tony Currie or Babych on his right wing, and they all look at home there. Sutter missed one game, so Jorgen Petterson played left wing and scored three goals."
More than most centers, Federko likes to set plays up from behind the cage.
"In one game, Edmonton was crowding the front of the net, so I went behind it. It worked well for us, so we kept doing it. It's a tough play for the defense. Having the cage there is like having another guy on your side."
Although he's already established himself as a prolific scorer, Federko thinks he is several years away from his peak and hopes to improve his game in the interim.
"I don't need work on just one part," he insists. "Overpassing, knowing the exact time to shoot - the judgement area - my defensive game, everything. I'm a plus on defense, but not as high as I'd like to be. I'm not bad, but I'm not as good as I should or could be."
To Federko, as to most of the Blues, winning the Stanley Cup is the paramount objective. But, he remains realistic.
"We're all very inexperienced in the playoffs," he admits. "Out of 20 guys, we probably don't have 100 playoff games among us. We're going to be there, and ready this time, but if things don't work out, there's always next year. We're still a team on the way up.
"The prime age of hockey is 27 to 28, and most of us are several years or more younger than that. We may be two or three years away from our full potential. But if we only come close to the cup, next year we'll pick up some little things we need in the draft and get better.
"The Stanley Cup is definitely our goal, even this year, and it's going to take a heckuva team to beat us."
Ukrainian players on NHL training camp rosters
When the 1981 National Hockey League teams opened their training camps in September no less than 65 Ukrainian stars were vying for spots on opening-day rosters. The majority of these Ukrainian hopefuls were youngsters destined for further seasoning with their junior league clubs or on professional contracts in the four-tier level of the minor leagues.
A positional breakdown shows nine Ukrainian goaltenders (13.8 percent), 18 defensemen (27.7 percent), 19 centers (29.2 percent), eight left wingers (12.3 percent) and 11 right wingers (16.9 percent). From the above it can be concluded that 70.8 percent of Ukrainian hockey players choose to specialize in one of the three "skill" positions of hockey, namely goaltending, defense and center.
Certainly goalie is the most difficult of any position on the ice - it requires literally years of practice. Defense requires the ability to skate forward and backward in order that this player may aid in defending against an on-rushing attack and generate his own team's offense with a rush from within his own zone. A center must generate natural speed, develop, the knack of winning face-offs so that his team may take control of play, feed his two wingers at appropriate times and show some semblance of an accurate shot.
Looking at teams heavily populated with Ukrainians finds the Chicago Black Hawks leading the way with seven, the New York Islanders next with six. Five Ukrainians are listed with Washington and Winnipeg while St. Louis, Toronto and Calgary each boast four. The remaining clubs have at least a duo or trio with two exceptions (Minnesota and Quebec). Pittsburgh (shame on you, Penguins) is the only NHL franchise with nary a Ukrainian hockey player.
Not to be forgotten are our three Ukrainian coaches: Mike Nykoluk, Cliff Koroll and Walt Tkaczuk. The former is into his first full year as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs after taking over midway through last season. Nykoluk was rather rudely treated by his previous employers, the New York Rangers, following Fred Shero's dismissal. Believing it simply a matter of time before he received a head coaching job, Mike was proven correct by Toronto's offer last year.
Ex-Black Hawk right winger Koroll enters his second full season as Keith Magnuson's assistant in Chicago. Cliff, known for his special defensive abilities during his long career, coaches the forwards with a strong emphasis on teaching them the arts of forechecking and defensive positioning on the ice.
A serious eye injury prematurely ended Tkaczuk's lengthy active service with the Rangers. However, his knowledge and skill of the game proved to be impressive enough to land him an assistant's spot with his former team. Walt also begins his first full season behind the bench next to head coach Herb Brooks, usually manning head phones in communication with another assistant or scout in the press box. His primary duty is to instruct the young Ranger centers.
|Los Angeles||Dan Bonar||C|
|New York Islanders||Mike Bossy||RW|
|New York Rangers||Jeff Bandura||D|
|St. Louis||Wayne Babych||RW|
|New York Rangers||Walt Tkaczuk|
Maruk scores 4 for Capitals
Semenko excels in Oilers' victory
The above headlines appeared atop two of United Press International's daily accounts of hockey story lines from the first two months of this season. They refer to Washington's Maruk notching his second hat trick of the young campaign (actually Dennis did himself one better by scoring four goals) and Edmonton's Semenko grabbing the scoring spotlight in his team's recent victory over Vancouver where Dave netted two goals including the game-tying sot.
NHL Ukrainian player of the week
By tallying two goals and assisting on three others scored by grateful teammates, thus totalling five points in an 11-2 annihilation of hapless Toronto, Dennis Maruk is honored as our first player of the week. At press time Dennis had catapulted to seventh on the NHL scoring list.
Runners-up: In two St. Louis wins Bernie Federko and Wayne Babych each registered one goal and three assists as the Blues began their uphill comeback in the league standings.
Coming next week: latest scoring stats, the promised Ukrainian amateur draftees in 1981, the latest Mike Bossyisms and much, much more...
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, December 27, 1981, No. 52, Vol. LXXXVIII
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