Scotty Bowman still chuckles at how Igor Larionov inspired the creation of what became known as the Russian Five.
The unit gained fame and was a central component of three Red Wings Stanley Cup teams in six seasons, and according to Bowman, the initiators of the puck possession type of game Detroit has continued to play with masterful success since. But it came together by chance, after the legendary coach was barking instructions to his struggling power play unit during a practice and not at all happy with what he saw.
|Igor Larionov played in 150 playoff games in the NHL. (Getty Images)|
So ever the thinker, Larionov went ahead and suggested the coach put him together with teammates Slava Fetisov, Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov. The unit spent the next minute and 45 seconds skating and moving the puck feverishly in perfect sync, but never bothered to take a shot.
"I told Igor after that his guys had just killed the penalty for the other team," Bowman laughed. "He said he told everyone not to shoot because he didn't want me to stop them by blowing the whistle."
Bowman had no intention of stopping Larionov. The veteran player was 36 years old when the Red Wings traded sniper Ray Sheppard to San Jose for him, and he wasted little time turning into a leader in the room and a force at both ends of the ice. It helped that Larionov's offensive creativity tended to get him compared to Wayne Gretzky in terms of on-ice vision, and his ability to think the game earned him the nickname the "professor."
"I'd say he was probably the last piece of the puzzle for us," Bowman said. "And the thing that was most underrated about him is that people don't realize how good he was defensively. He was as sure a player as I ever had in the last couple of minutes defending a lead. He knew how to play."
So well in fact, that it kept him a prisoner in his own land until he was 29 years old. Larionov was a central piece on those great Soviet national teams of the 1980s, the ones that avenged their Miracle on Ice humiliation with a Canada Cup victory, two Olympic gold medals and four world championships. In the days of the Iron Curtain, that meant he was too good a talent to let get away.
NHL teams actually started drafting Soviet players in low rounds in those years, not really expecting to bring them over. But Larionov and his slighter older teammate Fetisov were determined and continue to protest for their freedom for years. They were even once under house arrest as a result, but when the political changes started there in the late 1980s, the Soviet authorities decided to make a buck off aging but still useful players by selling them to NHL teams.
Until then, only one low level player named Sergei Priatkin had managed to see limited NHL action, but the former international stars opened a pipeline for new talent that has grown dramatically over the years and produced several dominant stars.
Fetisov began in New Jersey and made it to the Hall of Fame in 2001, while Larionov started in Vancouver and played until he was 42 years old. His initial three years with the Canucks were uneven, and then he went to Switzerland for one season because the authorities back home couldn't touch his pay check there. But the struggling 2-year-old Sharks enticed him back to North America, and Larionov helped make it one of the most entrenched organizations of the last wave of NHL expansion.
"I'd say he as was as important to our franchise as Gretzky was to the Kings when he went to L.A.," former Sharks GM Dean Lombardi said. "The honeymoon for us was over and there was a lot of turmoil, but he came here and helped us get to the playoffs and solidify us in the area."
Larionov had a great first season in San Jose, and led the eighth-seeded Sharks to an upset against top-seeded Detroit in the opening round. But it was when he joined the Red Wings in 1995 that his career really seemed to kick start and enter one of its best phases.
Larionov played for the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils as well during his NHL career, and finished with 169 goals and 644 assists in 921 regular-season games, and another 30 goals and 97 points in 150 playoff games.
The numbers were not necessarily eye popping and arguably don't compare to the impact he had on the game as a trail blazing pioneer. But there is no one who doubts he has earned his spot in the Hall because of what he did on the ice in the NHL and the international stage.
"If you looked up hockey player in the dictionary, his picture would be there," Lombardi said. "It's like using a candle to explain the brightness of the sun -- you can't. You had to see his genius to appreciate it."