Larionov: more than a teacher
By Nancy Koenig | Special to NHL.com
December 20, 2002
When a Cup-winning team has a talent surplus as large as the 2001-02 Red Wings, it is inevitable some key players will get more attention than others.
Igor Larionov's name may not be the first that comes to mind when recalling the roster that read like an All-Star program, but make no mistake about it: "The Professor" was a huge factor. It didn't seem to surprise anyone that Larionov's 43 points in 70 games helped his team earn an NHL-best 51 wins and 116 points last season. Few eyes blinked when he collected five goals and 11 points in 18 playoff games, including the game-winning goal of Game Three in the Finals, the third-overtime goal which swung the series in Detroit's favor. He may have been the oldest player in NHL history to score an overtime goal in the Finals, but it almost seemed typical. After all, Larionov was never one to disappear at crunch-time. There's a good reason the hockey world forgot to be awestruck by his performance last season, despite the fact that his birth certificate supposedly indicates he celebrated his 42nd birthday earlier this month. I'm just trying to figure out what it is. Perhaps it's just that we've come to expect great things from Larionov.
The history books will tell you he was one of the first Russian players in the NHL. What that statistic doesn't clarify is that it was largely his courage that led them here. By 1989, democracy had found its way to Russia, but you wouldn't have known it to have been a member of the Red Army team. "Everything had changed except hockey," said Larionov of the era. So he set out to catch his sport up with society and together with Slava Fetisov, led a revolt against coach Viktor Tikhonov and Russian Ice Hockey Federation which resulted in a bridge between Russian players and the NHL. While others helped build it, it was Larionov and Fetisov that lifted the heaviest bricks, ones that easily could have come crashing down on them. One came in the form of an article Larionov wrote for a Moscow paper about the harsh conditions they endured as players.
"My original intention was for us to be treated like professionals," he said. The players were kept at a training camp for 11 months out of the year, away from family and friends. After games, they were ushered back to the grounds. Practices were held two or three times a day and when it was time to wind down, there was little to do other than channel surf? mind you, there were only three stations to choose from. "When you're isolated from society, it's almost like being in prison," Larionov said of the eight years he spent with the Central Red Army. "The facility actually had a fence around it. I loved playing hockey, but there was no opportunity to enjoy life outside the game."
Larionov's crusade led to great changes in Russian hockey, including the liberty to play overseas. Originally drafted by the Canucks in 1985 (214th overall), he made it to Vancouver for the 1989-90 season and has been pumping passion into the NHL ever since. As for changing things in Russia, one needs to look no further than last year's Olympic squad to understand how different things really are today. None other than Fetisov himself coached team Russia. Who did the coach choose as his captain? You guessed it: Larionov.
It's often said that the best players in hockey are those that make others better merely by sharing the same ice surface. In Larionov's case, it isn't just that he has the ability to raise a teammate's plus-minus rating. Being in his presence can also greatly enhance another's IQ. Ask any player or coach that has had the pleasure of working with him for a description, and your odds of winning lotto are better than the word intelligent or a synonym being omitted from the answer. Besides his blend of skill and brainpower, Larionov is also known for his religious conditioning, healthy diet and how seriously he takes the game. One would think that last trait to be a byproduct of his Soviet training, but it was in place long before his days with the Red Army and even before his four years with his hometown team of HK Khimik.
"I started playing hockey when I was seven and from the first day, I was serious about it," he said. "I never missed a practice and was excited to get on the ice every day. At age 14, I realized this was to be my profession." And what a vocation it became. How many hockey players can brag three Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals? He helped Detroit to the Cup in 1996-97, 1997-98 and 2001-02 and struck gold with the Soviet Union in 1984 and 1988. He was named the Soviet Player of the Year in 1987-88 and was named to the Russian All-Star team five times while playing for the Red Army.
A young Sergei Fedorov was honored to play with him when he became part of the Red Army team in 1986-87. "I was 15 or 16 at the time," Fedorov said. "To play on the same team with Igor was quite an experience for me. I learned so much from him and from his style." Fedorov was fortunate to get an early jump on Larionov's lessons but his supply of wisdom is endless. Of course, so are the jokes about him being the oldest current player in the NHL.
"He's 49," dead panned Brendan Shanahan. "But he looks like he's 42." Shanahan and Luc Robitaille followed their laughter with an array of accolades. Yes, the word smart came up a lot. "That's what's kept him in the game," Robitaille said. "He's 'The Professor!' When you're that smart, you can play this game a long time. It's a lot of fun to watch him out there."
One can only imagine the discussions that go on between Larionov and Brett Hull, another player known for his sharp mind and ability to express it. According to Hull, their philosophies on the game are "exactly the same" but that isn't the reason you won't hear Hull giving Larionov the jabbing he enjoys dishing out to other teammates. "Never," said Hull, the sincerity written across his face as he explained why with three simple words and a reverent smile: "Too much respect."