Larionov inducted into Hall of Fame for bringing Russian influence
TORONTO -- Igor Larionov played almost half of his career before he even knew the Hockey Hall of Fame even existed.
Larionov was one of the best players in the world for the dominant teams of the former Soviet Union, but being isolated behind the Iron Curtain he only dreamed of achieving success in a red USSR jersey.
On Monday he was inducted into the Hall as part of the 2008 Hall of Fame class that also included longtime Oilers winger Glenn Anderson, linesman Ray Scapinello and late junior hockey builder Ed Chynoweth.
"I never even knew about the Hall of Fame at that time, in the '80s," Larionov said. "I was drafted by the Canucks in '85 and I just found out about it in '87. I knew [about] the National Hockey League because I played the Canada Cups and the Super Series against NHL teams. ...
"Talking about the Hall of Fame, I had no imagination 28 years ago to even think today I would be talking to you guys."
The time has passed when the Hall of Fame was reserved almost exclusively for North Americans who made their mark in the NHL.
Larionov is the sixth Russian-born inductee -- five players plus coach Anatoli Tarasov in the builders' category -- and couldn't help but reflect on how quickly the hockey world has evolved.
Growing up near Moscow in Voskresensk, he dreamed of glory playing for the Soviets and eventually won two Olympic golds, four world championship golds, a Canada Cup and two world junior championships.
"We had just one goal -- to win the Olympics and the world championships," the 47-year-old Larionov said. "Nowadays, young [Russian] players are dreaming to play in the National Hockey League. When they're taking the first steps in the youth programs, everybody is [hoping] to go to the NHL and play like [Alex] Ovechkin and [Evgeni] Malkin or Sidney Crosby.
"I guess the game has changed in some ways, but still it's a beautiful game. I'm so happy that Russian boys are making some impact in the National Hockey League."
Larionov was one of the first Soviet players to join an NHL team.
In 1989, he and Canucks general manager Pat Quinn worked out a contract in the kitchen of his Moscow apartment. He was almost 29 years old and remembers thinking that he might spend three years playing in North America before retiring.
Larionov went on to play 14 seasons in the NHL, winning three Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, who embraced the European puck-possession style and once had an all-Russian five-man unit that included Larionov and fellow Hall of Famer Slava Fetisov.
It came as no surprise to Scapinello that the tactic proved successful. He spent 33 years as an NHL official and marvels at how much the league's style of play evolved with the arrival of European players.
"They changed the game," he said. "The North Americans were bangers and crashers and it was expected and the fans loved it. These guys came over and they were finesse players. I did games with the Soviet Red Army team -- they'd never dumped the puck in. ...
"The European players were a great influence on the game and our North American players have gotten with the program. Just look at the game now, it is so fast. I watch classic games and it looks like they were skating in sand."
Even Anderson held a deep appreciation for the international style of play.
He made his name as a big-game scorer on the '80s Oilers Dynasty, but got his start with the Canadian national team. Anderson remembers being in a hotel with Soviet players in 1979 and sneaking up to their floor just to say hello.
"If you want to be the best you've got to be able to play against the best," Anderson said. "The best were in international competition and outside of North America.
"I believe the NHL is the best league, but there are other leagues out there and other players that are very, very talented -- especially back in the '70s."
Even though Larionov helped lead the flood of Russian players to the NHL, he's now hoping to help reverse the flow.
He serves as an adviser to Russia's Continental Hockey League, known as the KHL, and would love to see it grow to the point where it could challenge the NHL.
There might not be another player who has tasted as much combined success as Larionov did at both the international and NHL level.
A generation of Russian players grew up worshipping Larionov the way that young Canadian boys idolized Wayne Gretzky, but part of his legacy lives on in North America too.
Larionov -- known as The Professor to his teammates -- was a thinking man's hockey player who helped make the "Russian Five" fly in Motown.
"Our style was to control the puck as much as we could, make a lot of passes," he said. "I guess that game was accepted in Detroit."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press