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Round 2
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Stanley Cup Final

Soft-spoken Larionov was harder than steel

Monday, 11.10.2008 / 3:53 PM / Hall of Fame

By John McGourty - NHL.com Staff Writer

"In the Soviet system, we played 5-man units and they remained together for years. The KLM line lasted for 8 years. When I came here, I learned that lines might last only 1 game or 2 games. You have to adjust your style of play and not be complaining about who is your linemate and just do your best for your team."
-- Igor Larionov

TORONTO -- Igor Larionov, the great Soviet star who led the exodus of Russian players to the NHL in 1989 and won 3 Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, was a small man, but he played and speaks with great courage. He was a superior athlete, but he looks like the team bookkeeper.

He was allowed to jump to North America in 1989 "because players over 30 weren't welcome in the (Russian) system," Larionov said. "They wanted younger players they could control."

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The Soviets forced a deal in which NHL teams would send part of the player's salary to the Russian Hockey Federation as compensation. Larionov was so outraged by his former bosses skimming money from players they no longer wanted that he played out his 3-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks and then went to play in Switzerland to stop the money flow. The upside of that?

"It allowed me to learn Italian," he said.

To get an idea of Larionov's calm and business-like ways, he was at a gym preparing for his daily workout when he got the call informing him of his Hockey Hall of Fame induction. Larionov then swam laps for 45 minutes, drove home and told his wife. Oh, by the way ...

NHL executives found him no easier to deal with in financial matters than the Soviets had. He left the Canucks to settle a personal score. Later, Sergei Makarov and Larionov were paired on a line with the San Jose Sharks and lifted the team from a 24-point season to an 82-point campaign, the greatest single-season improvement of any team in NHL history.

He joined the Detroit Red Wings in 1995 and helped them to Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002. He thinks Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman is the smartest coach ever and reels off the names of his teammates -- Kris Draper, Slava Fetisov, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Darren McCarty, Tomas Holmstrom, Dominik Hasek -- with great admiration.

Larionov retired in 2004 with 169 goals and 475 assists for 644 points in 921 NHL games, although he didn't enter the NHL until he was 29. He slowed in his later years, but he was always quicker than fast. He used his speed and great stopping and passing skills to open space and create opportunities from himself and teammates. He was an incredible stickhandler and a faceoff whiz. In his Soviet years, he was faster, quicker and more creative, but in his NHL years, he was smarter, more experienced, more analytical and tougher.

The separation between the North American and Soviet hockey worlds was so great that Larionov, an international star at the time, didn't learn of the Hockey Hall of Fame until 1987, a couple years after he was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks.

"I had no imagination, 28 years ago, that I would be talking to you guys and preparing for the ceremony of my induction," he said.

He said there were great differences in the philosophies of Soviet and NHL teams, something for which he was unprepared in 1989.

"In the Soviet system, we played 5-man units and they remained together for years," he said. "The KLM line (Vladimir Krutov-Larionov-Makarov) lasted for 8 years. When I came here, I learned that lines might last only 1 game or 2 games.

"You have to adjust your style of play and not be complaining about who is your teammate and just do your best for your team. With Scotty in Detroit, I had so many different linemates. But to me, to be able to play on a great team, for a great coach, with so many great guys, it didn't matter. It was part of my job to make the players who played with me better."

Larionov speaks quietly, usually with his head tilted down, and isn't afraid to say hard things. He is 5-foot-11 and played at 170 pounds, but lasted for 27 professional seasons because of his commitment to fitness and his steely determination. He is almost 48, but looks 35.

Larionov created new offensive attack patterns in his youth with the Soviet National Team while centering a line with Makarov and Krutov. The trio was teamed with defensemen Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov on the famed "Green Unit," one of the best 5-man groups in hockey history.

Larionov is the fifth Russian to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, following 1930s NHL star Sweeney Schriner, Fetisov, goalie Vladislav Tretiak and right wing Valeri Kharlamov. Larionov was asked Monday at the media session prior to his induction that if the Hall asked him to recommend other Russians from his era or earlier who he thought would be qualified to follow him, he answered, "Too many to name, but my dream would be those players I was with, Makarov, Krutov and Kasatonov, they belong."

It means a lot to us, we're very excited. We're looking to continue to build on [our] top core talent of young players. It's just a great opportunity for us to really build high.

— Panthers vice president of hockey operations Travis Viola after Florida won the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft Lottery