- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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"In the '80s, he was arguably the best center in the world."
-- Wayne Gretzky
Long before any Soviet-born player could dream of leaving the country, let alone of playing in the NHL, Igor Larionov planned to do just that.
It was back in 1981 at the Canada Cup, the second edition of the best-on-best tournament that featured a young Wayne Gretzky, and other stars such as Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Gilbert Perreault.
"When I first stepped into Canada, in Winnipeg, for our first exhibition game at the '81 Canada Cup, I realized one day I wanted to come and play over here," Larionov recently told ESPN.com in advance of his upcoming induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night. "Because of that, there were a few bumps during my eight seasons with the Red Army team."
Larionov, just 20 at the time, was at one point barred from traveling outside the Soviet Union because the Soviets were worried he would escape and stay behind somewhere in North America.
"I was quoted in the media and expressing myself quite openly that the day would come where I would play in the NHL, but I wasn't sure when," Larionov said. "It took us a while to get the doors open for many of us to come to the National Hockey League."
Wayne Gretzky, for one, saw what the rest of the hockey world was missing. Larionov was a legendary talent. He was a visionary. He was a pioneer.
"Back in the '84 Canada Cup, I got a chance to meet with him and spend some time with him," Gretzky recalled. "I didn't even know he spoke English. That was the first time I thought maybe those guys might come over and play in the NHL. We talked at length about it."
Gretzky's next visit with Larionov convinced him that it was only a matter of time before the Soviets would break the NHL barrier. During the 1987 Canada Cup, and under the supervision of coach Viktor Tikhonov, the famous KLM Line of Larionov, Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov, along with blueliners Slava Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov, went over to Gretzky's family home in Brantford, Ontario, for a barbecue.
"That's when I got to know [Larionov] even better and I found out a lot of those guys wanted to come over and play in the NHL," said Gretzky. "Both Igor and Fetisov spoke perfect English.
"Those two guys were the big leaders of trying to get Soviet players over here."
Larionov's legacy is somewhat underappreciated by some North American fans, likely because he played his best hockey outside the NHL.
"Igor is one of the greatest players that has ever played this game," said San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson, a former Norris Trophy winner who played against Larionov in the 1984 Canada Cup.
"To me, Igor is a true genius in how he played the game," added Wilson. "I can't say enough good things about him, not only as a player but as a person. He is a wonderful guy that I don't think has received the true appreciation of what a great, great player he really was."
Appropriately nicknamed The Professor, Larionov saw the game like few others.
"He was a real brainy player," said Scotty Bowman, who coached Larionov in Detroit.
"He was one of the smartest people I've talked to on this earth," said fellow countryman and current Capitals forward Sergei Fedorov, nine years his junior.
"You talk to him for five minutes, and you realize what his personality is like," Hurricanes forward Sergei Samsonov said. "It was the same way he played on the ice. He's so intelligent."
"He sort of had Wayne Gretzky hockey sense," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said.
Larionov had four goals and one assist over seven games of that 1981 Canada Cup, and the Soviets crushed Canada 8-1 in the final. He was on his way to a decade of glory, most of it spent on the famous forward line with Krutov and Makarov.
"We opened a new page for Soviet hockey with that tournament because it was after the Olympics in Lake Placid [and Team USA's stunning "Miracle on Ice" upset over the Soviets]," said Larionov. "There was a big reconstruction going on. To debut at that level at the '81 Canada Cup and play against top Canadian players, that was one of my best memories.
"And we finished that tournament with a great win at the Montreal Forum, so that was an incredible accomplishment. Canada had some great players. The game was at a different level than what I had seen before."
Gretzky faced the KLM line again at the 1984 and 1987 Canada Cups, and soon forged a relationship with Larionov, as much as the rules allowed in those days.
"To watch that KLM line, that was as good a line as has ever been in hockey," Wilson said.
Larionov sighed when asked to relive those KLM memories.
"I would really need to sit down with you over a glass of wine to really talk about it," said the California wine entrepreneur.
But he did his best to describe the feeling of playing on such a magical line.
"Eight seasons we played together, side by side, day after day and month after month," Larionov said. "It was a tremendous chemistry between us and the way we played the game. We were able to showcase our game to rinks around the world. To me, that was a joy when you can create, paint a masterpiece and when you know that's going to happen every time you step on the ice. Fans were excited to see us play and we enjoyed playing for them and playing for the love of the game."
It finally happened in 1989. Vancouver Canucks GM Pat Quinn went over to Moscow and negotiated a deal with the Soviets. Larionov and Krutov became Canucks. Of course, there was a catch.
"I think $1.15 million from my salary over three years went back to the Soviet government," said Larionov.
But it was the price that helped finally opened the floodgates and allowed Russian players to one day make a living in the NHL. Fetisov made a similar deal so he could join the New Jersey Devils. Larionov believed it was important to leave Russia with the blessing of his government and not defect like others. He wanted it done right so, one day, all Russian players could do it.
"Those guys paid high taxes to the Russian sport government agency in order to leave," Fedorov said. "Their salaries were minimized by 65 percent. I just defected. But they couldn't do that. They were older and wiser and they had to be responsible. I respect them for that."
Said Samsonov: "Igor's impact was huge. He was one of the first guys to come along into the league and helped pave the road for players like me."
(Over the years, Larionov would not forget those former Russian greats who didn't have the chance to follow him to the NHL. He has helped raise money for former players living on hard times, at events like the famous charity game in Red Square two years ago. He is also still using his political muscle and business savvy to help the fledgling KHL in Russia.)
When it came time to sign a new deal with the Canucks for the 1992-93 season, Larionov fought again. This time, it cost him a season in the NHL.
"When I was signing the deal with Soviet authorities, one of my conditions or requests was that this money would be used for youth programs for development of Russian hockey players," Larionov said. "But every year, I went home to Russia and never saw any trace of money spent on youth programs."
The Russian government wasn't going to feed off his hockey salary ever again, he said. So, Larionov defied his government and instead played with Lugano in Switzerland.
It was not an easy decision. He loved Vancouver and had just begun to forge great chemistry with young Russian sniper Pavel Bure. But Larionov had to follow his principles.
Luckily for Bowman, he would eventually get to coach the great Russian center. After a sojourn in San Jose (Larionov was reunited with Makarov as the upstart Sharks delivered one of the biggest upsets of the decade in beating Bowman and the powerhouse Red Wings in 1994), Larionov arrived in Hockeytown early in the 1995-96 season.
"He was a special kind of player," Bowman said. "The part about him, really, is how good he was defensively. I hardly ever had a player as good as him in the last five minutes of a game when you were protecting a lead. His positional play was so good.
"It's like having a playing coach on the ice. I thought because he was battle-scarred from all the big tournaments he played in. He was calm. He just made all the right moves all the time."
For Fedorov, it was a reunion with a player he tremendously admired. As a timid teenager on the Soviet national team in the late 1980s, Fedorov didn't really get to know the legendary Larionov. But he watched and learned.
"When I joined Red Army team, he was one of the most gifted and talented centers in the game, if not the best," Fedorov said. "His stickhandling, the way he saw the ice, for me as a center, that was key to see and work on."
Nearly a decade later, they were teammates in the NHL. It was a dream come true.
"At that point, I felt he didn't mind if I talked to him," Fedorov said. "We were more like friends in Detroit, not work colleagues. That was a fun time. Eventually, we would play on the same line and that was a thrill."
It was Bowman, the NHL's winningest coach, who had the vision to unite his Russian players. The Russian Five was the NHL version of the Red Army's Green Unit, with Fedorov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov joining veterans Larionov and Fetisov.
"Huge credit goes to Scotty," Larionov said. "He was a huge fan of Anatoly Tarasov and the Soviet way of moving the puck and creativity. It was amazing to have that opportunity to play that style of hockey again."
Holland believes the Wings' Russian Five had an impact on the NHL game that's still felt today. "It's a puck-possession game today, and I really think Scotty and the Russian Five had something to do with that."
And in Detroit, Larionov filled the last void in his illustrious career: a Stanley Cup championship.
"That's the real reason I wanted to come to North America," said Larionov. "The money was important, but the only piece missing in my trophy collection was the Stanley Cup.
"To have that opportunity to play with Detroit and winning that first Cup in '97 was an incredible feeling. You don't get that Cup for free. You have to go through that marathon season and long playoffs to get it. It was a huge joy."
The trophy case alone speaks volumes -- two Olympics gold medals, four World Championship gold medals, three Stanley Cups. But Larionov's 27-year hockey career expands past the numbers and the hardware -- his Hockey Hall of Fame induction will also honor a truly remarkable journey.
"It's a very honorable thing to be acknowledged as one of the greatest players of the game on both sides of the ocean," Fedorov said. "I'm really excited for him. He's been a great role model, on and off the ice.
"This is so well-deserved."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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