Fond farewell for Larionov

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

They nicknamed Igor Larionov The Professor because, for nearly three decades, he was by far the smartest guy on every one of his hockey teams. He once even challenged world champion Anatoli Karpov to a game of chess.

"We called him The Professor when he was 16 years old," his friend and teammate, Slava Fetisov, said. "He was intelligent. He always tried to find the right solution."

Larionov turns 44 tomorrow and he is in the news because they are having a retirement party of sorts for him in Moscow on Dec. 13.

It is a measure of the respect he earned over a dozen seasons in the Russian national team and another 15 in the NHL, that former teammates, idled by the NHL lockout, will converge from all over the world to celebrate with him in one last game of shinny.

Larionov, who retired last spring, will suit up with a team of Russian legends while the World team will be heavy with Detroit Red Wings who benefited from his cerebral approach to the game through their recent hey-day.

More than that, it is interesting to reflect on the NHL's loss of such an elder statesman at a time when its millionaire players are involved in a struggle against their oppressive millionaire bosses.

The irony is that Larionov wrote the book on standing up to hockey injustice. Real injustice, not the modern mock version. Nothing in today's players lockout manual can compare to the risk that Larionov and Fetisov ran when they took on the Soviet hockey machine in the late 1980s.

Back then, if you challenged Soviet sport, you challenged the Communist Party.

And when you challenged the Communist Party, you risked everything.

The Soviet national hockey team was one of the government's primary propaganda weapons, especially during the 1970s and 1980s when communism was starting to lose its grip. They called themselves the best team in the world and they had the victories to prove it, with one small hiccup at the 1980 Olympics.

Larionov and Fetisov were members of the Soviets' legendary Greens (they always wore green shirts in practice), along with Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov and Alexei Kasatonov.

For nearly a decade they played as a seamless five-man unit that performed in perfect harmony.

They had grown up steeped in the teachings of Anatoly Tarasov, the brilliant godfather of Soviet hockey.

"His famous expression to the players was that even when you were playing the game and controlling the puck and going five-on-five, you still have to see the nice-looking blond girl in the second row," Larionov said years ago.

"That's what he was saying. You have to see the other things around you."

In the mid 1980s, Larionov was noticing a lot of things around him and not liking much of what he saw. Like the fact he was spending 11 months a year with a bunch of smelly hockey players and hardly ever had a chance to see his wife or family.

Coach Victor Tikhonov was a dictator and his players were afforded virtually no opportunity to savour their lives as hockey heroes. It was hockey or training, 24/7.

Larionov had had enough.

An article under his byline appeared in a Moscow newspaper, ripping Tikhonov's methods, comparing them to slavery. When Fetisov went on record that he would never again play for Red Army, Tikhonov threatened to send him to Siberia. Larionov countered with an open revolt against the coach and the hockey bureaucracy. More threats ensued.

Larionov knew from family experience that such threats should be taken seriously. During the 1930s, his family was banished from Moscow when an acquaintance ratted out Igor's grandfather for making an off-hand comment to the effect that Joseph Stalin was not much of a politician.

The informant related the comment to a Communist Party apparatchik and the entire Larionov family was sent to the factory town of Voskresensk. You could say they were lucky, one supposes, because Stalin had millions murdered, many for lesser offences.

Instead of being banished this time, though, Larionov and Fetisov eventually got their wish from a rather more enlightened government: A ticket to North America and the NHL.

He played three years in Vancouver, a year in Switzerland, two more in San Jose, eight in Detroit, and one last fling in New Jersey last season.

Now his career, unique in that it began on one side of the great ideological divide and ended on the other, is over. He often said that when he signed with Vancouver, he figured he would retire after the three-year contract was finished.

"In Russia, a 32-year-old hockey player is considered an old man," he said.

"I've been lucky."

And so have we. 


Videos

Photos