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|27 января 2004
Freedom is music to Larionov's ears - USA TODAY
By Jill Lieber, USA TODAY
Growing up in the former Soviet Union, in the hardscrabble industrial
town of Voskresensk, Igor Larionov and his family listened clandestinely
to Voice of America radio broadcasts for half an hour each night. In that
brief window to the outside world, the hockey prodigy developed a passion
for the truth, freedom and rock 'n' roll.
"There was a fear of the KGB, so you had to be careful not to tell anybody you were doing this," says Larionov, who understood the ramifications of defying the government. His paternal grandfather had been banished to Siberia in the late 1930s at the height of Stalinist purges.
"At 12 years old, I was already asking, 'What is really happening in the world?' I was being taught something very different from what I was hearing on Voice of America. I was hearing songs by the Beatles. I wanted to know the truth, to taste freedom, to experience all that life had to offer."
Larionov, at 43 the oldest player in the NHL and in his 14th and final season in professional hockey as a center with the New Jersey Devils, hears music everywhere he turns. At home in Short Hills, N.J., daughters Alyonka, 16, and Diana, 13, are busy launching a pop music career, singing practically around the clock. They're putting the final touches on a demo CD. Next month, they'll showcase their talents at a New York City club in hopes of landing a major recording contract.
"I left the Soviet Union for one reason: Freedom. The freedom to choose my own path in life," Larionov says. "I believe in being passionate about life. You have to be honest. You have to be yourself."
In the hockey sense, being Larionov means being one of the most gifted centers to play the game, for many years with the Detroit Red Wings. The free agent left the Wings after last season and returns to Detroit for perhaps the last time as a player Thursday. He has 10 assists but no goals entering Tuesday.
Former Detroit coach Scotty Bowman says Larionov is one of the most intelligent players he has coached.
"What separates Igor from other players is his vision on the ice," says Bowman, Larionov's coach during three Stanley Cup-winning seasons in Detroit (1996-97, '97-98, 2001-02). "He sees the ice so clearly. He's always well aware of the situation. He knows when the game is on the line. He knows when to take chances. He's got a sixth sense. Wayne Gretzky had it, too."
In the Russian sense, being Larionov means being one of the most outspoken and courageous athletes to come through the Soviet sports system. Robert Edelman, a Russian history professor at the University of California-San Diego who authored Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the USSR, says Larionov is "arguably the most politically important athlete in the history of Soviet sport."
"Igor really understood what was going on in the period of perestroika — this opening to the West and the early stages of the process of globalization," Edelman says.
Russian hero fights the system
In 1981, Larionov was recruited against his will to play for the nation's dominant hockey team, the Central Sports Club of the Soviet Army. He centered the famous KLM line, which included Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov, and won two Olympic gold medals (1984 and '88). He rose to the rank of captain without firing a gun.
In the late 1980s, the International Olympic Committee was moving to obliterate the delineation between amateurs and professionals, which would allow those on Soviet teams to play in the NHL and still represent their country in the Olympics.
The Calgary Flames were the first to sign a Soviet player, late in the 1988-89 season, little-known Sergei Priakhin, who had played for the Soviet Wings.
But the Soviet Ministry of Defense and national team coach Viktor Tikhonov forbade superstar Soviet players to take their game to North America without defecting.
"This was a time of tremendous change — some were in favor of it, some were not," Edelman says. "Not everything emanated from the Kremlin, however. President Mikhail Gorbachev couldn't be bothered with worrying about hockey players going to the West."
When the Soviet Ministry of Defense and Tikhonov reneged on a promise to allow defenseman Slava Fetisov to play for the Devils. Larionov lambasted Tikhonov in a popular Soviet political magazine for "his Stalinist tactics." When Fetisov was left off the 1989 World Championship roster and reassigned to a desk job, Larionov, drafted by Vancouver, and his teammates threatened to boycott the tournament.
"Hockey was still behind the curtains," Larionov says. "Nobody knew how Tikhonov treated the players until I spoke out. Year after year, living in a training camp behind fences, even paradise becomes hell."
Finally, in 1989, after his persistent battling, the State Sports Committee agreed to let Larionov and Fetisov play in the NHL, breaking the barriers for all Soviet athletes to pursue their careers in the West.
"Igor is a hero in Russia and a legend in hockey," says Devils center Sergei Brylin, who was born in Moscow and played in the Central Army's hockey system. "Standing up to the Soviet government and Tikhonov was completely unheard of. Igor fought the system and made it easy for the rest of us."
Survivor instincts serve him well
Larionov carries conviction in his genes. "The Russian soul is different from the American soul," he says.
By Todd Plitt, USA TODAY
His paternal grandfather, Ivan Larionov, survived 14 years in a gulag in Siberia for his outspokenness. In 1937, KGB agents knocked on the door of his Voskresensk home, near Moscow, at midnight and hauled him away for a dissident act, while his wife, Paulina, and their five sons slept. They struggled to keep from starving.
"The five boys shared one sugar cube a week," Larionov says.
After Stalin died in 1953, the grandfather was finally able to return home.
"My grandfather was lucky," Larionov says. "Most people were either executed in the gulags or died there. ... It's the saddest part of our history."
His maternal grandfather, Fedor Barankin, had a life of hardships and heartbreak, as well. After being wounded in the early days of World War II, he was taken to a labor camp in Norway. When he was released near the end of the war, he thought he'd return home a hero, but the Soviets imprisoned him for several years, claiming he was a German spy.
"I still get goose bumps, comparing my life to theirs," Larionov says. "I can't even imagine what it was like for them."
Larionov's father, Nikolai, at home in Russia, still cannot speak about the atrocities committed during Stalin's regime. At 14, he went to work in a Moscow bombs and munitions factory. He retired two years ago, at 74, from his job as a metal worker. A quiet dissident, he encouraged his son to listen to Voice of America and question authority.
Having a strong sense of survival instincts has served Larionov well throughout his hockey career. He eats only two meals a day, usually breakfast and a late lunch. He has a glass or two of wine every night. He works out religiously. And he tries never to put himself in a position to be hit on the ice.
At 5-10, 165, Larionov is nicknamed "The Professor," as much for his bespectacled appearance off the ice as his supreme intelligence on it.
He's a master at chess. He's the co-author of one autobiography and is writing another. He's spearheading his daughters' singing careers. He's the owner of a theater production company, bringing musicals to the Moscow stage. His first offering, The Witches of Eastwick, a London import, is running to rave reviews.
"He's always interested in many things," says his wife of 17 years, Elena, a former two-time junior world champion ice dancer. "He likes to know a lot about life."
A man of many tastes and talents
Larionov is also an ambitious wine connoisseur. He has a wine cellar of more than 550 bottles at his Fort Lauderdale home. He has traveled on tastings to the south of France. This spring, he launches his own label, IL Triple Overtime.
The first 1,000 bottles will roll out in Dearborn, Mich., at a March 9 fundraiser for Red Wings forward Darren McCarty's cancer foundation event. A portion of the proceeds will go to McCarty's foundation.
Eventually, Larionov will import three tiers of wine to Russia: a reserve Shiraz 2002 from Australia, a sauvignon blanc 2003 from New Zealand and a French blend of Merlot and Sirah. Last summer, he and partner Mike Davis, a wholesale distributor from Detroit, hosted two tastings in Moscow that were well received.
"Throughout Russian history, vodka has been the liquor of choice," Larionov says. "With the economy getting better, the middle class and the rich are swinging to wine. There's a tremendous business opportunity."
Davis says: "Being in Russia with him is like traveling with Babe Ruth. He has tremendous respect, and he can open incredible doors. ... He has a love of wine and a lust for learning. With all of the reading he does, he comes up with a lot of stuff about wine that I don't know."
Having moved 19 times in the past 15 years with Elena and their brood, which also includes Igor, 5, Larionov is ready to throw himself into his business ventures and to settle down in one place. He's not sure where that will be, except that it won't be in Russia.
"It's too difficult a transition for my children," says Larionov, who visits Russia every summer for two months. "Elena and I bring them up Russian. We talk to them in Russian because we don't want them to speak the language with their grandparents and friends in Moscow with an American accent."
Larionov won't forget his Russian roots. He's raising money to build an ice rink for the children of Voskresensk. In December, he'll stage his retirement game in Moscow — North American All-Stars vs. Russian All-Stars. Bowman will coach the North Americans. Fetisov, Krutov and Makarov will coach the Russians. The festivities also include two banquets, a private tour of the Kremlin and a rock concert with a performance by his daughters.
"It's time for me to do different things in life," Larionov says. "It's
also time for me to help my children achieve their goals. I can feel it
— in my heart, in my soul."
Ларионов и Дацюк