Larionov earned respect of Russian stars

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:24 AM ET

Clutching the arm of soon-to-be Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin as they strolled up the red carpet together at the swank NHL awards in June, the stunningly beautiful Alyonka Larionov easily caused more heads to turn than Alexander The Great did.

Alyonka, an aspiring singer who tried out for American Idol, was also in Washington the following day, where a party was held in Ovechkin's honour after he was awarded the key to the city.

There is no doubt that Ovechkin, who also went to Los Angeles to visit Alyonka for a couple of days during the off-season, is a big fan of the Larionov family.

But his respect for legendary Russian forward Igor Larionov, Alyonka's famous father, runs far deeper than just trying to make inroads with Alyonka by sucking up to her dear ol' dad.

Like so many Russian-born players throughout the NHL, Ovechkin, 23, understands that Larionov was one of the pioneers who helped pave the way for his fellow countrymen to play in the NHL.

As such, he, teammate Sergei Fedorov and Atlanta Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk will all be cheering as Larionov is honoured during Hall-of-Fame weekend here in Toronto, festivities which will culminate Monday with his official induction into hockey immortality.

"It's such a great honour for him to be in the Hall of Fame," Ovechkin said last night. "I'm very happy for him."

Ovechkin's relationship with Igor Larionov dates back to when the Caps sniper was in his mid-teens, long before he and Alyonka were causing tongues to wag.

"I met him for the first time when I was 15 and he skated with my team in Moscow," Ovechkin said. "His wife had a brother who was one of my teammates.

"It was such a great experience for me to play with a player like that at such a young age. Even when I was that little, he was such a professional."

Sergei Fedorov, Ovechkin's teammate, could not have said it any better.

Now in the twilight of his career, Fedorov, 38, yesterday recalled a time when he was a young budding star with Red Army, a wide-eyed kid who was overwhelmed at being able to pull on that same red jersey as teammate Igor Larionov.

"I am appreciative and honoured to have played with Igor," Fedorov said. "It was the most amazing thing for me to play with such an amazing player and person."

THE PROFESSOR

Larionov's nickname is (The Professor). In his own mind, Fedorov knows why.

Said Fedorov: "I learned my stuff from him. Playing centre I tried to do everything the way he did. Most of all it was the way he could see the ice, control the puck, anticipate plays -- he was my greatest teacher.

"I was lucky to join the Red Army club when I did and play with him when he was in his prime. It was truly an incredible experience."

For Russians like Ovechkin and Fedorov, Larionov's induction once again underscores an important point: That it is known as the Hockey Hall of Fame, not the NHL Hall of Fame.

During his 14 seasons in the NHL, Larionov racked up 169 goals and 475 assists in 921 games. But it was his accomplishments prior to his arrival to the NHL at age 29 that are just as important as those he achieved in North America.

THE KLM LINE

He was part of the Soviet Union team that won the world junior title in 1979, then helped the Big Red Machine win the Canada Cup in 1981. More importantly, together with Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov, he was part of the famed KLM Line, one of the most famous units in hockey history.

Drafted by Vancouver in 1985, his efforts to flee to North America were repeatedly rebuffed because Soviet players were not allowed to play in the NHL.

After being punished on a number of occasions for trying to bolt, he finally joined the Canucks in 1989, sparking an NHL career that would feature three Stanley Cup titles with the Detroit Red Wings.

For today's Russian stars, however, Igor Larionov is about more than just Stanley Cup rings. Much more.

"He's one of several elite Russian players we look up to," Kovalchuk said yesterday.

Kovalchuk then offered the following off-the-cuff remark.

"He's The Professor. He knows everything."

He certainly knows what it takes to be a Hall of Famer.


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