"Everyone knows Igor Larionov was a great player. His passing and vision were spectacular. People may not know, however, that he was one of the brightest students of the game I was ever around. He was always learning, always helping, always teaching. I loved that part of his game."
-- Wayne Gretzky
When Igor Larionov
becomes the fifth Russian player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, his credentials will include 3 Stanley Cups, 2 Olympic gold medals, 4 World Championships and a World Junior Championship.
In 14 NHL seasons, starting at age 29, Larionov posted 169 goals and 475 assists in 921 NHL games. He was plus-104 for his NHL career.
Perhaps more importantly, Larionov helped launch Pavel Bure
's career in Vancouver, put his no-nonsense stamp on a young Sharks team in San Jose and then helped the Detroit Red Wings
end a 42-year Stanley Cup drought.
In a nutshell, Igor Larionov
was an impact player.
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"I'm feeling excited," Larionov said about Monday's induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. "It's getting to the point where I'm feeling really nervous about the whole weekend. It's a big honor to be included in the Hockey Hall of Fame with the greatest people who played or contributed to this game. I'm looking forward to the experience."
Long before he joined the NHL in 1989, Igor Larionov
was widely recognized as one of the greatest hockey players in the world. He first came to international prominence in the 1979 World Junior Championship when he helped lead the Soviet Union to victory. Larionov had 6 points and linemate Vladimir Krutov
led the tourney with 8 goals and 6 assists.
"I played against Igor at the World Juniors," Phoenix Coyotes
coach Wayne Gretzky
said. "That was my first awareness of him. Then at the 1984 Canada Cup, I managed to sneak him out for dinner. The Red Curtain hadn't come down yet. I remember being astounded at how great his English was!
"Everyone knows Igor Larionov
was a great player. His passing and vision were spectacular. People may not know, however, that he was one of the brightest students of the game I was ever around. He was always learning, always helping, always teaching. I loved that part of his game."
Larionov helped cement the idea (fear?) that the Soviet Union had passed Canada as the world's leading hockey power when he led his country to victory in the 1981 Canada Cup.
Larionov played 4 seasons for his hometown Voskresensk Khimik team in the Russian Elite League before being put on the Red Army squad that formed the core of the Soviet Union's international team. With the CSKA Moscow (Red Army) team, Larionov played most of the decade with right winger Sergei Makarov
and Krutov, the famed KLM line. They were teamed with defensemen Viacheslav Fetisov
and Alexei Kasatonov
as the "Green Unit," because they wore green jerseys in practice. That is one of the greatest 5-man units in the hockey history and Larionov was the director, the playmaker.
The KLM is remembered not just for its success, but also for its innovations and the execution of plays now standard in hockey. Larionov, in transition, was famed for launching headlong attacks at top speed into the offensive zone, hitting the brakes to open space and making crisp passes, especially weak-side ones, to his linemates or a trailing defenseman.
The Canucks drafted Larionov in 1985 when no Soviet players were allowed to play in the NHL. Larionov's efforts to depart for North America were repeatedly rebuffed and he suffered several punishments. He finally left for Vancouver with Krutov in 1989 and had 17 goals and 27 assists in his first season. His numbers might have been better if Krutov had not had such difficulty in adjusting to living and playing in North America. Krutov played only 1 NHL season.
The Russians had worked a deal with the NHL in which they would be paid part of the salaries of players departing for the NHL. Virulently opposed to that system, Larionov left the NHL at the end of his 3-year contract to play in Switzerland. Vancouver put him on waivers and San Jose claimed him. The Sharks also traded with the Hartford Whalers to get Makarov and persuaded Larionov to return and join his old linemate.
"When we reunited in San Jose, it took us 6 seconds to click and bring back that magic of the style we played in the 1980s," Larionov said. "To help a young team be that successful that year was amazing. I think it was the greatest NHL turn-around of all time. I was in Switzerland and 32-years-old and I wasn't sure I would join the team. They were restructuring and going in a new direction and I had so many other offers.
"The owner, George Gund, came to Switzerland to persuade me. He said he was making changes and wanted me to play with Makarov. That made me change my mind. We went from 24 to 82 points and brought people to the arena. At the end of the season, we beat Detroit in the first round. That team has been successful in that city ever since."
The Sharks were in their third season and were coming off an 11-71-2 record. The Sharks got much more than a 32-year-old center. Larionov stands only 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds but, as he proved with his Soviet ex-masters, he could stop a "Bear" with a stare combined with his inflexible integrity. The Sharks improved to 33-35-16 and jumped from 24 to 82 points in his first season, the greatest improvement of any NHL team in history.
The upstart Sharks then upset the Red Wings in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and took Toronto to 7 games in the next round as Larionov had 5 goals and 13 assists. The team fell back the next year and Larionov was traded to the Red Wings early in the 1995-96 season.
He had his most productive NHL season that year with 22 goals and 51 assists for 73 points and a career-high plus-37. He had 6 goals and 7 assists in 19 playoff games before Detroit fell to Colorado in the Western Conference Final.
Larionov was plus-31 in 1996-97 and had 12 goals and 42 assists in the regular season and 4 goals and 8 assists in 20 playoff games in leading the Red Wings to the first of their 2-straight Stanley Cups, a sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers
. Captain Steve Yzerman
accepted the Stanley Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman, raised it above his head and then handed it next to Larionov.
"When I was growing up and playing hockey in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, my goals were to win in the Russian league, play for the national team and win gold medals in different events around the world.
"My goal in joining the NHL was to win the Stanley Cup. That opportunity came on one of the greatest teams I've ever played for. It was a season-long battle, 82 games plus playoffs, before we finally won the Stanley Cup. The great thing was ending a 42-year drought in Detroit that went back to 1955.
"To me, that is the highlight of my career."
The thrill was dampened 5 days later after a team party when a chauffeur lost control of his vehicle, badly injuring defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov
and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov. Fetisov escaped with lesser injuries.
Larionov had 8 goals and 39 assists the next season and 3 goals and 10 assists in the playoffs, leading Detroit over the Washington Capitals
. The series is best remembered for Konstantinov, in a wheelchair, joining his teammates for the celebration.
"The game of hockey is so fast, but sometimes you can slow down the game when you know what is going on. You can think the game 4 or 5 moves ahead. (KLM line members) all had that experience. Even when you are playing against bigger, stronger opponents, there is a split second to make a decision to make a perfect play. My game was based on that. Your decisions should be right and every pass must be on the stick of the receiving player." -- Igor Larionov talking about his time with the KLM line on the Red Army team
"The celebration was short-lived because of the accident," Larionov said. "To be able to repeat is not easy these days. Nor is getting to the playoffs. That particular year was even tougher for us because we lost one of the top defensemen ever to play the game. To be able to play and stay positive and try to repeat required a lot of team effort and sacrifice. It was amazing we could win the next year and with Vladdie in a wheelchair, it was a very emotional win."
Rising salaries and contract difficulties caused Larionov to sign with the Florida Panthers
in 2000 -- where he was briefly reunited with Bure -- but Detroit got him back after only 26 games. Detroit won the first of its 7-straight Central Division crowns, but fell to the Los Angeles Kings
in the first round of the playoffs.
There would be no such upset in 2002 as Detroit won the division, the President's Trophy as the NHL's best regular-season team and the Stanley Cup. Larionov had 5 goals and 6 assists and was plus-5 in 18 Stanley Cup Playoff games and the Red Wings beat the Carolina Hurricanes
in 5 games. That makes it sound easier than it was.
Carolina won Game 1 in Detroit on Ron Francis
' overtime goal. Detroit came back to tie it in Game 2. Carolina was leading 1-0 in Game 3 when Larionov tied the game in the second period. They went to 3 overtimes and Larionov scored the winning, no, backbreaking, goal on a backhand shot. Detroit won the next 2 games. He had the middle goal in the Game 4 3-0 shutout and an assist on Tomas Holmstrom
's clinching goal in Game 5.
True champions come up big in championship situations.
"I was honored to be able to win all three of my Stanley Cups with Scotty Bowman, the greatest coach ever," Larionov said. "The Red Wings were trying to get the best possible players after losing in the first round so to be back with the franchise and win again, I think that was the Stanley Cup that made me proudest.
"Every time you win, you want to win again. It's hard to do that, especially because I was getting older. We had a great lineup and great players. Many people doubted us because we had so many veterans that year. They said time had passed us by, but we won again and brought it back to Detroit."
Larionov played 1 year with the New Jersey Devils
before ending his career in 2004. He and his wife, Elena Botanova, live in Southern California and have three children, Alyonka, Diana and Igor II. Alyonka and Diana are aspiring musicians and actresses. Larionov thinks that business is as tough as hockey.
"It's a tough business, not very easy," Larionov said. "They are trying to find a way, like everybody else in L.A. They're doing some music and some acting. It's not like hockey, where people can see if you can play or not. Show business is different. They have talent and character but they need a break."
It's not surprising that some hockey players, who spend a lot of time around rinks, marry figure skaters, sometimes great ones. Long ago, Red Kelly
married Andra McLaughlin, the American who won the World Free Skating Championship and was a longtime fixture with the Ice Follies. Bret Hedican
is married to Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi. Botanova was the Soviet Union's national junior champion. Larionov laughed when asked if that was a requirement for his bride.
"That's right!" he said.
The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto honors all of hockey, not just the NHL, although until recent memory only NHL members were admitted. Larionov becomes the fourth member of the 1980s Soviet squad to be honored. Vladislav Tretiak
was inducted in 1989; Fetisov in 2001 and Valari Kharlamov, who played through 1981, the year of his death, was inducted in 2005. So, who is the fifth, actually the first?
David "Sweeney" Schriner, who played 11 NHL seasons from 1934 to 1946 and was inducted in 1962. Schriner, the 1934 Calder Trophy winner who won 2 scoring titles, won 2 Stanley Cups in the 1940s with the Toronto Maple Leafs
. His parents came to Calgary when Schriner was an infant.