Today NHL fans get to see the greatest players in the world, including the Russians. We are in awe of the Sergei Fedorovs and Pavel Bures, Ilya Kovalchuks and Alexander Ovechkins. And the fans and current players owe it all to players like Igor Larionov.
Igor Larionov was, very subtly, one of the most highly skilled hockey players we have ever seen. In some ways his best days were left behind in the old Soviet Union, but he still has excelled at the NHL level more so than any other of the veteran former Red Army teammates.
He battled and communist regime of the Soviet Union for the right to play pro hockey in North America. A member of the Central Red Army Team in Russia for eight seasons, Larionov centered the famous KLM line with Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov during the 1980s. He earned Soviet Player of the Year honours in 1987-88 and was named to five all-star teams with Central Red Army. He also starred in many international competitions with the Soviet National Team, including capturing gold medals at the 1979 and 1980 World Junior Championships, gold medals at both the 1984 and 1988 Winter Olympics and the World Championship in 1982, 1983, 1986, and 1989. In 1981 Igor helped the Soviet Union beat Canada for the Canada Cup.
But Larionov never wanted to play for the Red Army. He wanted to serve his mandatory 2 year term in the Army and return home and play with the local team Khimik, in industrial town of Voskresensk not far from Moscow. Russian Hockey dictator Viktor Tikhonov wouldn't allow the skilled center to leave, and pulled his communist strings to force Larionov to stay against his will. Larionov was too good to let go. He had been playing with Khimik since the age of 17, already displaying the cerebral game that would one day rival that of Wayne Gretzky.
Larionov, along with Slava Fetisov, were particularly outspoken and wanted to be able to leave Russia as a reward for their years of service and pursue a career in the National Hockey League. While Fetisov gets the majority of credit in that incredible battle, Larionov, too, faced tremendous hardships to get what was right. Tikhonov's retaliation went as far as kicking Larionov off of the national team after Larionov wrote a scathing letter about Tikhonov's treatment of player to a Moscow newspaper. The move backfired on Tikhonov, as it led to a player revolt.
It should come as no surprise that Larionov was a leader of the revolution. Well educated of the English language and western world, Larionov was often outspoken of the communist system. When he was 14, he found himself in trouble with school authorities for writing a positive essay about exiled Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, a political dissident.
Eventually won Larionov won his battle and was allowed to play in the NHL. He made his NHL debut with the Vancouver Canucks in 1989-90 and played three seasons. It was a period of adjustment both on the ice and off it, Larionov's obvious skill and puck sense captivated the league. Only Wayne Gretzky is in the same class when it comes to hockey sense, and puck creativity. Larionov, a chess addict, earned his nickname "The Professor."
The great beneficiary of Larionov's presence in Vancouver was the young star Pavel Bure. The aging Larionov's role in the NHL almost immediately became one of mentor. He would go on to tutor some the NHL's best Russian players, and won over fans on this side of the Atlantic too. Like one of his highly prized fine wines, Larionov was only getting better, though slower, with age.
"I signed a three-year contract with the Canucks [in 1989] and I thought I would be done at the end of it," Larionov recalled. "I was almost 31. In Russia, a hockey player at age 32 is considered an old man. Then (head coach Pat Quinn) put me between Trevor Linden and Geoff Courtnall and I suddenly got hot. I became the player of the month in November. Pavel [Bure] arrived and Pat put me with him and Greg Adams. Pavel was easy to play with. I understood his style immediately. He brought joy and excitement back to my game."
Although he never wanted to leave Vancouver, he refused to sign in 1991 because of the Russian interference in negotiations. He wouldn't allow any transfer payments to be sent to the powers-that-be in his old country. He played that year in Switzerland before being acquired by the San Jose Sharks in the 1992 Waiver Draft. With the Sharks the intellectual Larionov was briefly reunited with dazzling Makarov.
Larionov soon found himself trade to Detroit where he was reunited with Slava Fetisov. Along with Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov, the 36-year-old Larionov played a large role in helping the Detroit Red Wings win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 42 years in 1997. He had 12 goals and 42 assists in 64 games, and four goals and eight assists in 20 postseason contests.
Detroit became the utopia Larionov was looking for when he left Moscow in 1989.
"I finally found my harmony. In my years with the Red Army and national teams I had success, but not much fun. But in Detroit, I found what I was looking for when I came over in 1989 -- good teammates and freedom for what I wanted to do on the ice and off the ice."
"Igor was a very important part of our hockey club, a very important part of our winning the Stanley Cup last year. He's a very creative, playmaking center-ice man. Not only is he important on the ice, but as well (for) what he brings off the ice, in the dressing room," said team captain Steve Yzerman.
Detroit's first Stanley Cup victory celebrations since 1955 came to sudden stop a week after hoisting the Stanley Cup at center ice. A limousine accident nearly killed teammates Fetisov, Konstantinov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov. Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov suffered severe brain injuries. Fetisov escaped with non-life threatening injuries.
Larionov felt great pain for his teammates and close friends. He was supposed to be in that limousine with them, but decided to stay home with his family instead.
With a great sense of purpose, it was Larionov as much as anyone who led Detroit's emotional Stanley Cup defense to a successful championship in 1998. The entire season was dedicated to Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov.
Larionov and the Red Wings won a third Stanley Cup in 2002, and returned to the Olympics in 2002, winning bronze, making Larionov as one of the most decorated hockey players in the history of hockey.
Larionov, who briefly played with Florida and New Jersey, retired in 2004 to concentrate on his many business endeavors, including his own line of wines. He retired with 921 NHL games played, 169 goals, 644 points and millions of admirers.