Igor Larionov's take on NHL lockout? 'We can’t afford to lose another season'
Ex-Soviet superstar, Hockey Hall of Famer predicts league will start up in December
VANCOUVER — The National Hockey League lockout would surely seem absurd and trivial to Igor Larionov were it not for the damage it is causing the sport.
Larionov lived through profound reform — on the ice and in the streets — as the Cold War began to thaw, leading the fight in the 1980s Soviet Union for player rights at a time when the Berlin Wall was still like a prison boundary.
Larionov earned his own freedom and joined the Vancouver Canucks in 1989, cutting a trail that would be followed by hundreds of Russian players in ensuing decades.
He was 29 when he finally played a National Hockey League game. He went on to play another 920, plus 150 playoff games that included three Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings.
Larionov finally retired at age 43 in 2004, the year Russians Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, who could barely remember a time before democracy, were chosen first and second in the NHL draft.
With Olympic, world championship, world junior and Canada Cup gold medals, Larionov is one of the most decorated players in hockey history. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008 and remains, at 51, universally respected for his integrity and accomplishments.
He is a revered statesman for hockey.
Compared to Larionov breaking through cracks in the Iron Curtain, to standing up to tyrannical Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov and fighting for a fair salary and the freedom to earn it where he chooses, the current squabble between owners and players unable to divide $3.3 billion is, well, as petty and embarrassing at it seems.
“It bothers me,” Larionov said Tuesday in Vancouver. “I spoke yesterday to the union and I spoke to (NHL senior vice-president) Colin Campbell yesterday a little bit. The issues, I think they’re going to be resolved in a couple of weeks. They should be playing hockey by December.
“Obviously, (the lockout) is bad for everybody. We can’t afford to lose another season. You’re going to lose a lot of fans and lot of people who are watching the games and making this game better.”
Larionov is helping make it better this week by supporting the Subway Super Series between junior teams from Canada and Russia.
He flew to Vancouver from Toronto, where Larionov attended Hall-of-Fame ceremonies that included Monday’s induction of former linemate and Canuck teammate Pavel Bure, to help promote Wednesday’s game at the Pacific Coliseum between Russia and a team of Western Hockey League all-stars.
“At some point, the sunshine is going to come out in Vancouver,” Larionov promised, referring to the NHL lockout as well as the weather. “We’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel. (Union boss) Donald Fehr and his group, the players, and (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman and his group will make the final decision to play hockey.
“Watching the hockey the last three years, I’ve become more of a fan of the NHL now because it’s fun to watch every game. The game is in very good shape, financially, plus the level of hockey became better. It’s a mix of style between European and North American style. There’s a lot of young players coming up.”
Larionov is helping a few of them, including last June’s first-overall draft pick, the Edmonton Oilers’ Nail Yakupov.
After resigning as a director from the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League and returning to his home in the Detroit area, Larionov is putting his experience and contacts to use as a player agent. He said he wants to help teenagers from Russia transition to North America and plan for the NHL, while also preparing some players from this continent for the KHL.
“When I was young and struggling, I wanted someone to help me,” Larionov said. “If you’re not scoring goals and having a difficult time, you need someone to tell you what to do. It’s a big challenge for young guys coming to North America, as well as for young Canadian players going to Russia.
“I’m trying to pass my knowledge and my experience to the young Russian guys and teach them how to be like a pro and have a good life. I’m (working) with 14-16-year-old guys because that’s the time to take them under my wing and teach them and prepare them for the big life. I’m trying to teach the boys to be patient and work hard. And not just to be a good hockey player, but a good human being.”
He preaches the same philosophy to players migrating the other way. That, too, was unthinkable back in the 1980s. Imagine a Canadian player, perhaps not good enough for the NHL, choosing to play professionally in Russia.
“I ask them are you ready for KHL?” Larionov smiled. “They go: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ They go to training camp and the first week they say: ‘I want to go home and see my mom and dad.’ After two days. And they’re not in Russia yet; they’re only in Switzerland at training camp. They want to go home. It’s not easy.”
It never has been. But it’s much easier than it was when Larionov was young and driven by ideals. He still has those.
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