A year ago Igor Larionov ended up the odd man out when the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee had to consider a once-in-a-generation class of candidates.
With only four spots for five superstars, Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Al MacInnis and Scott Stevens each got the nod over the Russian great, whose accomplishments off the ice in breaking the barriers Soviet Union players faced in going to the NHL were just as significant as his artistry on the ice.
On Tuesday, the hall will unveil its class of 2008 and Larionov should be at the top of the list. Often described as the Wayne Gretzky of Russia, it would be a fitting honour for one of the game’s trailblazers, and ease the sting he felt at being left out last year.
“Obviously it’s a big disappointment but when you’re looking at the class of the players, there’s no doubt (about) everybody who’s been inducted last year, really true superstars,” he told The Canadian Press on Monday.
“You know what happened last year to me, this time I’m just taking it easy because whatever happens, happens. If it happens I’ll be thrilled and privileged and honoured to be included. If not, there’s nothing I can do.”
To that end Larionov spent the day watching Germany beat Austria 1-0 at Euro 2008, oblivious to the hall’s deliberations. In fact, the laid-back former centre said he wasn’t even aware that the hall would name its inductees Tuesday.
“Well, I had no idea it’s going to happen (Tuesday) or next week or in 10 days,” he said. “I’m just watching the soccer game, enjoying life. That’s all I can tell you.”
Other players eligible for induction include: Pavel Bure, Glenn Anderson; Dino Ciccarelli; Vincent Damphousse; Doug Gilmour; Phil Housley; Steve Larmer; Rick Middleton; Adam Oates; and Pat Verbeek.
Goalies eligible include: Tom Barrasso; Ron Hextall; Mike Liut; Andy Moog; Mike Richter; Rogie Vachon; John Vanbiesbrouck; and Mike Vernon.
Bure is an interesting case.
He scored 437 goals and 779 points in an electrifying career limited to 702 games because of injuries. He has better numbers in fewer games played than Cam Neely, who was inducted in 2005.
“For me he was a great hockey player,” Larionov said of Bure. “I played with Pavel for a couple of seasons, he was one of the true superstars in the league and he accomplished lots in hockey.”
So did Larionov.
He scored 169 goals and 644 points in 921 games over 14 NHL seasons and added another 30 goals and 97 points in 150 playoff games, winning the Stanley Cup three times.
That came after an exemplary Soviet and international career in which he won two Olympic gold medals, the 1981 Canada Cup and four world championship titles.
But some of his best work was in fighting against the draconian measures of former Soviet national team and Red Army coach Viktor Tikhonov. He clashed with Tikhonov over his policies forcing players to spend up to 11 months a year in barracks rather than at home, and over other stern policies restricting players’ freedom.
Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in 1985, it wasn’t until 1989 that he managed to make his NHL debut, after finally breaking through Tikhonov’s attempts to stop him.
Along the way he’s inspired countless Russian players, serving as an idol, mentor and friend.
“I thank Igor Larionov a lot,” Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk said during the NHL awards last week. “My first year here, he helped me so much. He showed me how to practise and everything. He was such a great player. He was the Professor. He just deserves to be in (the Hall).”