TORONTO – It wasn’t so long ago that Igor Larionov had no idea the Hockey Hall of Fame even existed.
Isolated behind the Iron Curtain in the former Soviet Union, Larionov didn’t learn he’d been drafted by the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks for two years.
Larionov was one of the best hockey players in the world while playing for the Soviets on the famed KLM Line, but he never imagined he’d one day be part of the ceremony that saw him formally inducted into the Hall on Monday.
And to think, he came to North America less than two decades ago.
“I never even knew about the Hall of Fame at that time, in the ’80s,” said Larionov. “I was drafted by the Canucks in ’85 and I just found out about it in ’87. I knew (about) the National Hockey League because I played the Canada Cups and the Super Series against NHL teams. …
“Talking about the Hall of Fame, I had no imagination 28 years ago to even think today I would be talking to you guys.”
His presence brought an international flavour to the 2008 Hall of Fame class that also included longtime Oilers winger Glenn Anderson, linesman Ray Scapinello and late junior hockey builder Ed Chynoweth.
There was a time when the Hall of Fame was reserved almost exclusively for North Americans who made their mark in the NHL. But that has changed. Larionov is the sixth Russian-born person to be honoured – five players plus coach Anatoli Tarasov in the builders’ category – and couldn’t help but reflect on how quickly the hockey world has evolved.
While growing up near Moscow in the town of Voskresensk, he dreamed of achieving success in a red USSR jersey. The 47-year-old would eventually win two Olympic golds, four world championship golds, a Canada Cup and two world junior championships while playing for the Soviets.
“We had just one goal – to win the Olympics and the world championships,” said Larionov. “Nowadays, young (Russian) players are dreaming to play in the National Hockey League. When they’re taking the first steps in the youth programs, everybody is (hoping) to go to the NHL and play like Ovechkin and Malkin or Sidney Crosby.
“I guess the game has changed in some ways, but still it’s a beautiful game. I’m so happy that Russian boys are making some impact in the National Hockey League.”
As one of the first Soviet players to join an NHL team, he was a pioneer.
In 1989, Larionov and Canucks GM Pat Quinn worked out a contract in the kitchen of his Moscow apartment. He was almost 29 years old and remembers thinking that he might spend three years playing in North America before retiring.
That plan changed over time as Larionov went on to play 14 seasons in the NHL, where he won three Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings – a cutting-edge organization that embraced the European puck-possession style of game and once iced an all-Russian five-man unit that included Larionov and fellow Hall of Famer Slava Fetisov.
It came as no surprise to Scapinello that the tactic proved successful. He spent 33 years as an NHL official and marvels at how much the league’s style of play evolved with the arrival of European players.
“They changed the game,” said Scapinello. “The North Americans were bangers and crashers and it was expected and the fans loved it. These guys came over and they were finesse players. I did games with the Soviet Red Army team – they’d never dumped the puck in. …
“The European players were a great influence on the game and our North American players have gotten with the program. Just look at the game now, it is so fast. I watch classic games and it looks like they were skating in sand.”
Even Anderson held a deep appreciation for the international style of play.
He made his name as a big game scorer with the ’80s Oilers Dynasty, but got his start with the Canadian national team program under the guidance of Father David Bauer. Anderson remembers being in a hotel with Soviet players in 1979 and sneaking up to their floor just to say hello.
Even though there was all kinds of curiosity about foreign hockey players at that time, Anderson was already aware how good they were. In fact, that is part of what appealed to him about the national program.
“If you want to be the best you’ve got to be able to play against the best,” said Anderson. “The best were in international competition and outside of North America.
“I believe the NHL is the best league but there are other leagues out there and other players that are very, very talented – especially back in the ’70s.”
Even though Larionov helped lead the flood of Russian players to the NHL, he’s now hoping to help reverse the flow.
He serves as an adviser to Russia’s Continental Hockey League, known as the KHL, and would love to see it grow to the point where it could truly challenge the NHL. While Larionov admits that the day is still far off, he believes there is enough money and political clout in his homeland to make it happen.
KHL President Alexander Medvedev was among those who attended the Hall ceremony in support of his countryman. The Russian billionaire says that Larionov still has a large following back home.
“He has a lot of fans and people still admiring his play,” said Medvedev. “He has a first-class reputation.”
The KHL is making big plans. Not only does it hope to absorb successful teams in other European countries, it also hopes to expand into Asia according to Larionov.
One thing he’d like to see soon is a truce with the NHL.
“It’s best for the game,” said Larionov. “We don’t need a Cold War right now in hockey. The game should be growing. …
“(We) should be working together to make the game globally recognized and to find new markets.”
There might not be another player who has tasted as much combined success as Larionov did at both the international and NHL level.
He was a slam dunk for inclusion in the Hockey Hall of Fame and he hopes the three remaining members of the KLM Line who haven’t been enshrined – Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov and Alexei Kasatonov – will eventually join him there. That unit played together for eight years and is arguably the greatest line ever.
A generation of Russian players grew up worshipping Larionov the way that young Canadian boys idolized Wayne Gretzky, but part of his legacy lives on in North America too.
The Red Wings won another Stanley Cup earlier this year while playing a similar style of game to what Scotty Bowman’s Detroit teams did a decade ago. Larionov – known as The Professor to his teammates – was a thinking man’s hockey player who helped make the “Russian Five” fly in Motown.
“If you want to control the game, you have to control the puck,” he said. “Even though the game is fast-paced, there are still split seconds where you can slow down the game and make it more like an art. …
“Our style was to control the puck as much as we could, make a lot of passes. I guess that game was accepted in Detroit.”