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|1995 год. The Detroit
Because of his experience and great talent, teammates call center Igor Larionov 'the professor.'
Political and hockey opponents know that Red Wings' Larionov is a fighter
The puck slides from player to player, stick to stick, backward, forward, no hesitation, no bounces. It finds the open space, a teammate finds the puck and the opponent scrambles. Directing this curious choreography, relishing the freedom of open ice, is the master of misdirection, the professor of playmaking.
"It is easy to just dump the puck in, but why?" Igor Larionov says. "If you keep it as long as possible, you make the other team mad. So that is what I do. I go against the flow."
Against the flow is the only way he knows. We have seen Larionov's magic for barely six months, since he came to the Red Wings in a trade with San Jose. The Wings gave up 50-goal scorer Ray Sheppard for an aging whiz that Paul Coffey called "the closest thing I've ever seen to Wayne Gretzky."
Now we know. We know that Larionov, even at 35, is one of the Wings' most valuable players, directing the five-man Russian unit. We see Larionov's game, marvel at his point-guard-like skills, at his leadership, at his ability to change direction. We see it, and we wonder what spawned it.
When you go against the flow, you must pick your spots, be courageous enough to try it, confident enough to pull it off. For eight years, Larionov labored on the Soviet national team, winning two Olympic gold medals and a world championship, loving the success, hating the conditions. Other Russian players defected. Larionov - older, more idealistic - stayed in the system to battle the system.
Wings defenseman Slava Fetisov, a longtime teammate on the Red Army team, uses the word "fighter" several times when describing Larionov. Fighter? He is 5-9, 170 pounds. When he is dressed, wearing his round wire-rimmed glasses, he looks like an underfed accountant.
"It is easy to fight on the ice," Fetisov says. "But not many people fight Communist system. He stood up for himself and other guys. He never gave up. That means more than fighting on the ice, no?"
Larionov had numerous chances to defect, and countless reasons. His grandfather spent 14 years in a Russian Gulag, imprisoned by then-leader Joseph Stalin. Larionov knew of Western culture and freedom but worried about leaving behind his family, about repercussions from the government.
All the while, Larionov struggled to preserve his dignity while playing for Viktor Tikhonov, dictatorial coach of the Soviet national team.
Against the flow? Larionov questioned how players were treated. He quarreled over the team's 11-month training schedule. In response, Tikhonov barred him from international travel for two years.
"I think it is because of my grandfather's life that I spoke out," Larionov says. "I saw so many unfair things. Through hockey, I tried to bring attention to our society, to how badly people were treated. I tried to defend the young players."
Eventually, he won his freedom, but it cost him the prime of his career. When he left the Soviet Union for Vancouver in 1989, he was 28. He and his linemate, Sergei Makarov, hardly were welcomed by NHL players increasingly resentful of the Russian influx.
So the fight continued, through three seasons in Vancouver, two more in San Jose.
"He played when the Russians were still a novelty and people questioned whether they could take the physical style," Wings captain Steve Yzerman says. "He took it all. He's smart, but gritty. He plays differently than anybody I've ever played with. He makes passes in different directions, not just straight ahead."
Larionov finally might have found a time and a place where he can stop fighting. In San Jose, he battled Coach Kevin Constantine when the Sharks started dealing veteran players, including Makarov. Larionov demanded a trade and landed on the best team in hockey, coached by a man who possesses some of Tikhonov's controlling ways.
"No comparison - Scotty Bowman is a human being," says Larionov, who led the Wings with three goals in the first-round series against Winnipeg. "He treats people with respect, not like slaves. Tikhonov humiliated and ridiculed players."
He snaps the words, punctuates them with a stare. It is easy to overlook Larionov's toughness when he sits quietly in the dressing room, occasionally counseling the Wings' young Russians, Sergei Fedorov and Vyacheslav Kozlov.
"He's not a robot," Yzerman says. "He's very serious, but he laughs at things. He's not afraid to reprimand the young guys. I don't know what he's saying because he does it in Russian, but you can tell by the tone."
The tone has changed, but it hasn't softened. Larionov still scraps to stay ahead, to catch up. He has a wife and two children to support, a whole culture to learn.
He loves soccer. He listens to European music. But he understands the system he fled, and the freedom he won. He sees the larger picture as clearly as he sees the ice. Teammates call him "the Professor" because he has experienced so much, fought so long, won so often.
The Stanley Cup is the only trophy Larionov hasn't captured, and he wants it badly.
"It would be nice to have all of the big trophies," he says. "I will never forget my experiences. It would've been nice to come here sooner, but that is over. You can't get it back. I have no regrets."
No regrets, no doubts. It's easy to accept the flow, more rewarding to battle it. Follow the puck, watch the Professor. It's amazing what a man can do with the freedom of open ice.