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Larionov, Igor

Larionov, Igor

Igor Larionov was already heralded as one of the top hockey players in the world when he finally made his NHL debut in October of 1989 at the age of 29. Prior to that debut, Larionov had earned this reputation during a dominant stretch back home in Russia where he centered the top-line in the country for several years. Larionov, who teamed with wingers Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov, was a four-time Russian First Team All-Star, a two-time World Championship All-Star and the Russian Player of the Year in 1988. He was a big part of the Russians 1981 Canada Cup victory as well as being a huge contributor to Olympic gold medals for Russia in both 1984 and 1988 as well as several World Championship titles. When the iron curtain fell, and Russian players were finally cleared to play in the NHL, the Vancouver Canucks salivated at the possibility of reuniting Larionov and Krutov in their NHL lineup.

When the two Russians arrived in Vancouver to much fanfare they began the adjustment of playing in the NHL. By season's end, it was clear that Krutov found the transition to the North American lifestyle difficult and subsequently retired, but Larionov, who accumulated 44 points that first year stuck with the league. When his point total dipped to just 34 during his second year with the Canucks, many thought that the famed Russian's career was in decline. However, during his third year he rebounded in a big way by scoring 21 goals and 44 assists and also added ten more points in the playoffs.

Despite his success in the NHL, Larionov was allowed to slip away by Vancouver and he signed a deal to play in Switzerland for the 1992-93 season. That same season Larionov's NHL rights were claimed by the San Jose Sharks. A year later, after acquiring Igor's former winger Sergei Makarov in a trade with the Hartford Whalers, they were able to lure the diminutive center back to the NHL.

San Jose, who were a struggling franchise at the time of the deals to acquire the two veteran Russians, enjoyed a major breakthrough season while the two countrymen enjoyed a personal and professional renaissance. The two were immediately able to rekindle their chemistry and Larionov's deft passing skills led Makarov to a 30-goal season while he himself scored 21 goals and 56 points in just 60 games. In the playoffs the Sharks shocked the hockey world by defeating the heavily favoured Detroit Red Wings in the first round, then had a 3-2 series lead versus the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round that they let slip way before losing the series in seven games. Larionov was the key to the Cinderella post-season march with 18 points in 14 games. Larionov lost a few games to injury the following season, which was the lock-out shortened year, though he did produce well when he was healthy with 24 points in 33 games and once again was key in the playoffs with nine points in 11 games. In 1995-96, with Makarov retired and Larionov set to turn 36, the Sharks felt the veteran was at the end of the line and jumped at the opportunity to trade him to Detroit for Ray Sheppard, who was coming off a 30-goal campaign.

In Detroit he was reunited with former National Team player Slava Fetisov, but also joined a club led by a group of young Russian stars who all admired Larionov greatly. The Wings top scorer that year was center Sergei Fedorov and the team also boasted bruising blueliner Vladimir Konstantinov and sniper Slava Kozlov. Coach Scotty Bowman often used the group as a five-man unit and Larionov fit in right away. The veterans poise and leadership in the locker room was immeasurable but his 71 points in 69 games was. When added to the two points he had scored in San Jose prior to the deal it added up to a career-best 73 point season. In the playoffs, Larionov once again was a force with 13 points for the Wings in 19 games, but the team fell short of its goal of winning the Stanley Cup.

In 1997 the veteran returned to Motown for his first full season with the club. The skilled pivot once again piled up assists for the team and played a solid two way game. This time, however, in the playoffs, things panned out for the Red Wings and they defeated the Philadelphia Flyers for their first Stanley Cup in decades. Detroit captain Steve Yzerman made it clear how important Larionov was to that club. The first player he passed the prized trophy too after it was given to him was Igor Larionov. That summer Larionov and his Russian teammates made history by brining the famed Cup home to the Soviet Union for the first time ever. The following season Larionov and the Red Wings repeated their feat by ousting the Washington Capitals in the Cup finals. Larionov led the Red Wings in assists with 49 and was tied for second on the team in points with 63 in 1998-99, but the team faltered in the post-season. When the following campaign also ended in disappointment, the Detroit brass decided it was time to go in another direction. Larionov, who was now 39 years old, was let go and became a free agent.

The Florida Panthers, whose line-up featured one of the new Russian stars in Pavel Bure, decided to take a chance on Larionov in the hopes his leadership and guidance could help the Panthers and their young star. The Florida situation went sour early, as the team struggled and Larionov scored just 11 points in 24 games with the club before he was traded away. Larionov, and fans in Detroit, were pleased that the team that had made the deal for him was the Red Wings.

Back in Detroit, the timeless Larionov's play improved, but once again, Detroit was frustrated in the post-season. In the summer of 2001, the Wings decided they wanted to make a serious run at getting back to the big dance and made a blockbuster trade to acquire goaltender Dominik Hasek, then signed free agents Luc Robitialle and Brett Hull. Many hockey observers felt the Red Wings line up featured far too many players in the twilight's of their careers and felt the team was too old to survive the lengthy playoff grind. Larionov, who was the oldest of this group, drew particular criticism.

The critics grew quieter when the Red Wings exploded out of the gates and led the league from start to finish while their veteran crew enjoyed a healthy, successful season. Larionov, who was now the oldest player in the league, played 70 games and scored 43 points. In the playoffs, Detroit continued to roll and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals versus the Carolina Hurricanes. The man known to teammates as "The Professor" became the oldest player in NHL history to score a Stanley Cup Final goal when he notched one versus the Hurricanes. Larionov wasn't through though. He scored a high-light reel back hand goal versus the 'Canes in the third overtime period of Game Three that essentially broke Carolina's back. Then, in game five, his slick pass to Tomas Holmstrom set up the Stanley Cup clinching goal for the Red Wings.

Larionov returned to the Detroit line up in 2002-03 and equalled his previous year point total of 43 and was instrumental in leading the Wings to first place in the Western Conference. After his second stint with the Red Wings, Larionov signed as a free-agent with the New Jersey Devils in the summer of 2003. Upon his arrival in New Jersey, injuries limited Larionov to a mere 49 games and to his lowest point total in his 14-year NHL career.

Following the Devils Eastern Conference Quaterfinal loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2004, Igor Larionov announced his retirement at the age of 42. Throughout his NHL career Larionov played in 921 regular season games, finishing with 644 points and three Stanley Cups.

Following his retirement, Igor was named Director of Hockey Operations for SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL, where he also served on that league's board of governors.

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