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IIHF Hall of Fame inducts six new members

by Bill Meltzer
The International Hockey Hall of Fame has announced its 2010 induction class, a six-person group, headlined by Latvian goalie Arturs Irbe and Russian winger Vladimir Krutov.

Irbe, the former NHL goalie, and Krutov, a high-scoring forward for CSKA Moscow and the Soviet national team, are joined by German national team forward Dieter Hegen, who starred in the 1980s to mid-1990s and Finnish women's player Riika Nieminen-Välilä.

In addition, longtime Swedish Ice Hockey Federation president Rickard Fagerlund and USA Hockey coaching pioneer Lou Vairo are being honored. Fagerlund is being inducted in the builder category and Vairo will receive the Paul Loicq Award for contributions to the international game.

The induction ceremony will take place on May 21, 2010 in Cologne, Germany during the 2010 IIHF World Championships.

Founded in 1997 and permanently headquartered in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, the IIHF Hall of Fame focuses on players, coaches and executives who have made important contributions to the sport -- both within their home country and in international competitions.

With the 2010 class, the honor roll has grown to 120 inductees representing 22 countries.

Among NHL fans, Irbe may be the most recognizable selection, although Krutov's exploits in the 1980s as a member of the famed KLM line-- along with linemates Igor Larionov (inducted in 2008) and Sergei Makarov (a 2001 inductee) -- were nothing short of legendary.

Along with defensemen Vyacheslav Fetisov (2005) and Alexei Kasatonov (2009), all five members of the legendary "Green Unit" have now been honored for their collective dominance.

Krutov's legacy was somewhat tarnished by his conditioning.

At 5-foot-9, he often played at more than 200 pounds. By the time he left for the West at age 29 and signed with the Vancouver Canucks (along with Larionov) in 1989, he had put on even more weight, and was out of the NHL within a year after playing 61 games and scoring just 11 goals and 34 points. He finished his career in the Swiss Nationalliga (SC Zurich Lions) and the Swedish minor leagues before retiring at the end of the 1995-96 season.

Although his physique was always doughy, Krutov had considerable strength to go along with his uncanny finishing touch. In his prime, he was nicknamed "The Tank" because his low center of gravity made him almost impossible to stop once he got rolling down the ice.

Krutov was not usually inclined to initiate contact, but when opponents tried to body check him off the puck, it was the would-be checker who usually ended up taking a seat on the ice while Krutov kept on rumbling.

In addition to annually ripping apart the competition in the Soviet league and starring in the Olympics and World Championships, Krutov often performed well against NHL competition in tournaments such as the Canada Cup and Rendezvous '87.

Statistically, his best club-team season came in 1983-84 when he racked up 37 goals and 57 points in 44 games for the Red Army team. Internationally, his best tournament was the 1986 World Championships, where he scored 7 goals and 17 points in 10 games. The following year, he tallied 11 goals and 14 points in 10 tournament games. Krutov's selection to the IIHF Hall of Fame makes him the 23rd Russian player to receive the honor.

Irbe, meanwhile, is just the second Latvian to be chosen for induction. Soviet-era right winger Helmut Balderis was the first, inducted in 1998. 

A two-time NHL All-Star, Irbe's NHL career was somewhat uneven; but, at times, he could match up favorably even against the elites at his position. In 2001-02, he backstopped the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final.

Irbe now serves as the goaltending coach for the Washington Capitals.

A colorful character off the ice, Irbe's career was nearly ended in the summer of 1994 when his hands were mauled by his family's pet dog. On the ice, "Archie" was instantly recognizable for his outmoded wire-cage helmet mask and worn out equipment that he refused to trade in for newer gear.

The diminutive (5-8) keeper was easy to underestimate, but he had almost freakishly fast reflexes and was among the most acrobatic goaltenders of his era.

Prior to coming to the NHL, Irbe starred for Dinamo Riga for four seasons. Before Latvia gained its independence in 1991, he played in two consecutive IIHF World Championships for the gold medal-winning Soviet Union, winning the Top Goaltender award in the 1990 tournament.

Fiercely proud to be a Latvian and to wear the national team uniform, Irbe represented the country nine times at the World Championships and twice at the Olympics. In one of the most emotionally charged international games in modern history, Irbe played brilliantly in leading Latvia to a 3-2 upset win against Russia in the 2000 IIHF World Championship in St. Petersburg, Russia. The victory was cause for national celebration throughout Latvia, as well as among Latvians who had settled in North America.

He first started for Latvia at the 1996 IIHF Pool B World Championships, leading the team to a promotion to the top international division. He then represented his country
in eight elite-level IIHF World Championships and two Olympics. At the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, Irbe was chosen to be Latvia's flag-bearer at the opening ceremonies.

If Dieter "Didi" Hegen had opted to play outside of his German homeland during the formative years of his career, he, too, would likely have had an NHL career.

He was selected by the Montreal Canadiens with the No. 46 pick -- one spot after Chris Chelios -- in the 1981 Entry Draft, but never signed a contract. In that era, it was still tough for players from secondary hockey countries to get a fair shake in the NHL, and Hegen was comfortable playing at home in the Bundesliga and its successor league, the DEL. The left winger was a fine two-way player who exhibited guts and desire, as well as fine talent.

Domestically, Hegen's best seasons came with Cologne and Düsseldorf, where he won a combined five German championships and collected numerous awards. But his greatest fame came outside Germany, where hockey remains a secondary sport.  Hegen played 290 international games for Germany (No. 13 on the all-time international list), suited up in a record-tying five Olympics, captained the national team for much of the latter portion of his career and played in 12 IIHF World Championships, one Canada Cup and the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. He was later selected the best left winger in German hockey history.

Finland's Riika Nieminen-Välilä is the fourth woman to be inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame, following Canada's Angela James and Geraldine Heaney and the U.S.'s Cammi Granato. 

She appeared in 118 games for Finland, scoring 109 goals, 95 assists and 204 points. Nieminen-Välilä won the scoring championship in the 1998 Games in Nagano Japan, the first Olympic ice hockey tournament to feature women's participation. The Finns won the bronze medal behind the U.S. and Canada.

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