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Fetisov, Larionov aim to bring gold back to Russia

by John Dellapina
VANCOUVER – Twenty years ago, Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov changed the hockey world. Now they'd like to see one thing go back to the way it was: Russia's ability to win Olympic gold.

The two men who put their careers, their national reputations and -- for all they knew at the time -- their lives on the line to improve the lot of Russian hockey players by busting the autocratic Soviet system and fighting for the freedom to play in the NHL have no interest in going back to the way things were. But both believe it is high time that a Russian Olympic team wins gold for the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"We've got big expectations from this Olympic tournament all over the country," Fetisov said Monday night at the inaugural Triple Gold Club induction ceremony that honored the 22 players who have won the Stanley Cup, Olympic gold and a World Championship. "We've invested a lot in hockey as a government lately. We built 300 new indoor skating rinks.

"We've got superstars in the National Hockey League. We created the Kontinental Hockey League in Europe. And for us, like the Canadians, it's a game that people love."

Also, like Canadians, Russians fully expect to win whenever national teams come together.  And why not? From their entry into Olympic hockey in 1956 through the 1992 Albertville Games, teams playing under the Soviet Union or Unified Team banner won gold 10 out of 12 Olympics – failing only when the Americans won in 1960 and 1980 in Games held in the United States.

Fetisov played on two of those triumphant Soviet teams, in 1984 and '88, after making his Olympic debut in 1980.

"I have the most famous silver medal in history," he joked Monday night, the 30th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice victory by the U.S. over Fetisov's mighty Soviets.

He also won two Stanley Cups (with Detroit in 1997 and 1998), a Canada Cup (in 1981) seven World Championships,  and three World Junior Championships. Quite simply, he was one of the finest defensemen ever to play the game -- and at the height of his powers, he took on the Soviet hockey hierarchy in an act of courage and personal conviction few athletes have ever shown.

Demanding his release to play for the New Jersey Devils, he spoke out publicly about the unfairness of a system that kept players together and in training 11 months of the year, mandated that all of the best players in the country play on one club team (CSKA Moscow, or, as it was known, Red Army) and refused them passage to the world's greatest hockey league, the NHL. Though he knew he had placed himself in jeopardy, Fetisov refused to defect -- believing that if he did, it would only delay playing in the NHL for fellow Russians.

Banished from playing hockey, he was consigned to a desk job and feared that his career was over. But Larionov, the professorial center of the fabled KLM Line with wingers Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov, backed Fetisov. Under pressure, autocratic coach Viktor Tikhonov had to restore Fetisov's playing privileges and give him back the captain's "K." Ultimately, the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation relented and allowed Fetisov, Larionov and seven other top older players to enter the NHL in 1989. Sadly, North American fans never saw the best of those two wondrous players the way they now get to see the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin at the height of their powers.

"We can look back like 20 years back and see what happened 20 years ago," Larionov said. "We were trying to make some changes in a good way for Russian hockey. Even today, we've got some good Russian players coming out of Russia.

"Four or five years ago, nobody knew who Ovechkin was. Of course, everybody knew there were promising guys coming in. But what the NHL did to those guys is it took them to the next level."

While Fetisov is fiercely proud of the Kontinental Hockey League, he has no interest in returning to the days when Russian players couldn't get to the NHL until, like him, they were past their athletic prime. Since a stint as an assistant coach with the Devils, he has spent much of his post-playing career working to build Russian hockey -- as GM of the 2002 Olympic team, as the Russian Minister of Sport from 2002-2008 and, currently, as a member of the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, GM of CSKA Moscow and chairman of the board of directors of the KHL.

He believes that work is about to bear golden fruit.

"We've been working the last few years to bring pride to the players to wear the national uniform," he said. "And I think the last five years, it was pretty clear for the players: They come to play for the national team. They want to win the gold medal.

"And we've got a new generation who is saying the right thing and playing pretty hard for the national team. And we've got pretty good results – two world championships and we're a favorite team for these Olympics."

Larionov, who joined Fetisov in Detroit to win those two Stanley Cups, says the World Championship victories only mean so much.

"To Russians, we won the last couple of World Championships, but next step is the Olympics," Larionov said. "I don't know, is it going to happen or not? But that's the big test. This time around, it's the best against the best.

Team Russia Gear "In the World Championship, we can take credit for winning, but not everybody is playing. So now it's a really big test for sure. So I think it's going to be a lot of pressure, especially in the quarterfinal game against Canada in Canada."

Larionov is wary of such a potential matchup.

"I know the Canadians lost two games now -- I count the game against Switzerland as a loss for Canada," he said, referring to Canada's shootout victory over the underdog Swiss in pool play. "So now they have a chance to redeem themselves and get their momentum back against Germany, their confidence. So I think it's going to be dangerous for the Russians. Because the Russians are going to lose that momentum sitting back for two days.

"I know that's maybe going to save some energy. But that's going to be a key moment, a key ingredient for the men's quarterfinal game. So it's got to be a team effort -- 20 guys against 20 guys. Three or four guys can make a difference, but at the end of the day, you've got to have 20 guys make a difference."

The two men who made all the difference in transforming Russian hockey's relationship with the rest of the world now can only watch and cheer. But they believe the time is long past for the products of their new world order to recapture some of that old-world glory.
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