Krutov Larionov Fetisov Kasatonov Tretiak

IGOR LARIONOV

“Definitely, he saw the ice the same as me, passing the puck, hockey sense, probably as similar to me as any player who has played the game.”
                                                                                 - Wayne Gretzky -                                                          

These words, coming from the best player who ever faced the rink, are a very fine description of the kind of hockey Larionov played for the last 23 years of his incredible career.

Igor was born on Dec. 3, 1960 in the hockey-crazy industrial town of Voskresenk, 140 miles outside of Moscow. He visited the hockey school of the local team Khimik, and played for their first team for four years between 1977 and 1981 before he was called up by the Central Red Army.

With the Red Army he won eight national titles, earned Player of the Year 1987-1989 and several All-Star appearances. He started his career in the Soviet team in 1981 after playing two years for the juniors. He won two Olympic Gold Medals and five World Championships with several more All-Star appearances and a whole host of different awards. But it’s not the medals and the honours which make this guy so special.

Igor never actually wanted to play for the Red Army. He had been planning  to go back and play in Voskresensk after his 2-year national service. But Moscow and national coach Viktor Tikhonov didn’t allow him to return to his home town.

Knowing his qualities passing the puck, observing the game around him and his immense intelligence on the ice, Tikhonov didn’t want to do without this player. Sad for Igor, but lucky for the hockey world. Centering the famous KLM-Line with Krutov and Makarov on each side, not only in the league but also in the national team, he became famous as the “Russian Wayne Gretzky”.

Igor was always a leader during his career. This leadership character was especially shown by him in 1988 when he wrote an open letter to Tikhonov and the Soviet Hockey Federation to stop the bad treatment and caging of the players and give them permission to play outside of Russia. After winning this “Cold War”, in 1989 the Soviet government allowed veteran players to leave the country and play in other leagues.

Along with teammate Vladimir Krutov, Igor went to Canada to play for the Vancouver Canucks. Like many other Russian players, he had a tough time finding his feet. He found himself in the Checking Line. But that wasn’t Larionov’s style of play. He never learned to destroy, he was one of the best playmakers in the world and his first two years weren’t very successful. The situation changed in 1991 when Pavel Bure made his step to the NHL and to Vancouver. Together with Greg Adams as left wing, Igor found two guys on his side who were able to use his creativity on the ice. Due to contract negotiations that stated, if Igor stayed another year in Vancouver the Soviet officials would get transfer fees for it, Larionov, a man of conviction, didn’t want them to get the money and left Vancouver to play one season for Lugano, Switzerland.  

Igor: “Europe is pretty close to a paradise for hockey retirees. Comfortable schedule, just two games per week. But after two months I was bored to death, I missed the pressure, fight, and the NHL atmosphere.”

While playing in Switzerland he got a letter from San Jose Sharks GM informing him that the Sharks had bought his rights from the Canucks, so he decided to go back to the NHL. The Sharks were one of the worst teams in the league when Larionov came to the club. But, reunited with his old linemate Sergei Makarov, they brought the team to a higher level, with the highlight in the first round of the playoffs beating the Detroit Red Wings after seven games.

Sharks Vice President Dean Lombardi: “Igor Larionov was as important to San Jose as Wayne Gretzky was to Los Angeles.”

After two successful seasons with the Sharks, Larionov decided to change clubs and signed with the Detroit Red Wings, where he found  Scotty Bowman, a coach who knew his strengths.

Centering a line with Sergei Fedorov and Slava Kozlov as his wings and Slava Fetisov and Vladi Konstantinov as defenders, they were the first complete Russian line in the NHL and they became famous as the “Russian Five”. After 42 years waiting, this line played an enormous part in bringing the Stanley Cup back to Motown in 1997. One year later, the Red Wings were able to win the title back to back, but the “Russian Five” were history after Konstantinov’s tragic accident.

After two further seasons with the Red Wings, the big soccer fan Larionov decided to make a last challenge and signed a contract with the Florida Panthers. The goal of the Florida GM was to improve the team with the help of Igor’s experience and to find a perfect Center for Panther’s Superstar Pavel Bure.

This idea was a general disappointment. The Panthers had a very lousy start to the season. After a lot of losses, the playoff participants of the previous season suddenly found themselves at the bottom of the league as the worst team. Pavel Bure was only able to score a few goals and Igor Larionov wasn’t able to change his game to suit Florida’s dump and chase style. In the end, Florida’s coach got fired and Igor went back to Detroit at the end of December 2000, where Scotty Bowman was waiting for him with open arms.
In his first game back in Motown he scored a goal and the Wings felt like he had never been away.In 2002 Igor won his third Stanley Cup with the Wings. He was one of the best players in the series against Carolina and the oldest player ever to score a goal in the finals.

The family man Larionov, who is married to former figure skater Elena Botanova, has three kids who were born in three different countries. His oldest daughter Alyonka was born in Moscow, her sister Diana in Vancouver and the youngest Larionov, son Igor in Detroit.

“The Professor”, as he is called by fans and teammates, is one of the smartest guys in the NHL. He is interested in many things outside hockey. Politics, science, visiting historic places and buildings are only a few of them. He visits Russia nearly every year to show his kids his native country. A lot of Russian fans were happy that Igor  participated in the 2002 Olympics as the team leader and helped the team to win the bronze medal. Reaching his 42th birthday on Dec. 3rd 2002, he is the oldest active player in the league, and everybody who loves his style of play hope that this living hockey legend will give us one more year watching him play.
Skate, Igor, skate!!