Jewish World Review April 26, 2004 / 5 Iyar, 5764
The professor stood for more than hockey
The Professor said good-bye last week, retiring from the game with little fanfare and only a few paragraphs in the local papers. Just as well. If you really tried to sum up Igor Larionov's life, you would need a special edition.
This was a boy whose grandfather was awakened in the middle of the night by KGB agents and tossed inside a Soviet gulag for 14 years.
This was a boy who grew up fiddling with a short-wave radio, pulling in signals from the Western world, hearing Eric Clapton's "I Shot the Sheriff" and writing down the Russian translation.
This was a boy who, as a teenager, heard that a dissident named Andrei Sakharov had been banished. Not long after that, his teacher assigned an essay on "any subject you choose." Igor wrote about Sakharov, even though his father had warned him: "Never speak about what you hear on the radio."
A few days later, the distressed teacher came to his home for an "emergency" meeting.
"Please," the teacher pleaded, "tell your son to keep quiet."
Russia would have liked to keep him quiet, keep him down, but to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, when they said sit down, he stood up. He grew into a hockey star, one of the best his country ever produced. He amassed two Olympic gold medals and a world championship. He wrote a controversial article in a Russian magazine, risking the wrath of his government.
And in 1989, one year after being named the best hockey player in Russia, he left the country.
HIS FACE REMAINED CHILDLIKE
He was almost 29 by the time he entered the NHL. By that age, many players are thinking about their final contracts. But Larionov seemed to be on special loan from the human factory: His face remained childlike through his 30s and into his 40s. His hockey skills - deft passing and incredible ice awareness - only seemed to improve in America.
Finally, nearing the age of 35 - when many players are calling it quits - Igor's talent coincided with his dreams. He joined the best team in hockey, the Detroit Red Wings, which had four other Russian players on the roster, including one dear friend, Slava Fetisov, from Igor's days on the Soviet Red Army team.
And for glorious stretches of that season and the next, the five of them played as a unit, weaving, spinning, passing, moving like a swarm of bees. No one had ever seen anything like it. "The Russian Five," they were called, and Larionov, nicknamed "the Professor," was their cerebral center.
"We were not just trying to get the job done," he now says of that group. "We were trying to create masterpieces. We were trying to make beautiful goals."
ALWAYS A PROUD MAN
The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997, the last jewel in Larionov's crown. There were more championships after that. Larionov left Detroit briefly to play in Florida, then was traded back. Last summer, he left for good when New Jersey offered him twice as much money for his final season. It was the wrong team for him. Deep down, he knew it.
"But," he says, sighing, "I have always been a proud man."
He retired last week, after New Jersey was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Larionov, at 43 the oldest player in the NHL, had become a bench-warmer there, a man who sits, an insult to a life spent standing up for so much.
Better to remember his triple-overtime game-winner in the 2002 Stanley Cup finals. Better to remember him hoisting that Stanley Cup in Red Square in Moscow. Better to remember him playing chess in the locker room, or starting a wine business. Better to remember him saying of his Red Wings days, "It was the greatest harmony between myself and the game."
He will play one more time, this fall in Moscow, when he will assemble an All-Star team of Russian players, young and old, against an NHL All-Star team, with festivities, concerts and dinners, an unprecedented melding of the two worlds he graced.
And then, his beautiful goals having been achieved, he will finally sit down. After standing up for so much, he has more than earned it.
Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
Comment on JWR contributor Mitch Albom's column by clicking here. You may purchase his latest book, "The Five People You Meet in Heaven", by clickingHERE. (Sales help fund JWR.)
04/19/04: No time like the present to relive the past
04/11/04: Sister's family loves its piece of the rock
03/18/04: North and South meet at Western Michigan
03/15/04: Hockey could stop fighting in a heartbeat
03/08/04: Yeah, right, downsizing food is the answer
03/01/04: Lord of the Geeks
02/17/04: Want to get hitched? Not so fast, pal
02/09/04: Beatlemania still resonates
01/26/04: Fine, you have 110 percent of our respect
01/20/04: The sanctity of wasting our money
12/29/03: Anyone remember a concept called 'childhood'?
12/22/03: The I's have it
12/15/03: Life's brilliant on the other side of the pond
12/08/03: Squeezed by the politics of business
11/24/03: Celebs' misdeeds will make great tales for the grandkids
11/10/03: The butler did it! (But do we care?)
10/27/03: Parsley, sage, rosemary and time
10/13/03: The Kobe case: There are no winners
10/07/03: Tough choices in the not-so-amazing race
11/05/02: Everything is a billboard, even the cops
10/29/02: Nowhere to hide ... even at 40,000 feet
10/22/02: The pen isn't mightier than good sense
10/15/02: We turn our serial killers into celebrities
10/02/02: In Minnesota Vikings star receiver's view, he's king, you're dirt
09/26/01: The feds don't feel their pain
09/18/01: Some cling to life, others give it away
09/12/01: Worshipping a false 'Idol'
11/14/01: Patriotism is no excuse for stupidity
10/30/01: Dr. Dre: champ for First Amendment!
10/23/01: Terror is sugar-free
10/16/01: The army of the in-between
10/11/01: New war begins with delivery of darkness
10/08/01: Give peace a chance?
10/01/01: If this is supposed to make us feel secure, it isn't working
09/28/01: And our flag is still there
09/26/01: On the road to Ohio, life's little joys return
09/25/01: Our challenge: Not to change who we are
09/17/01: We can learn plenty from the horror
08/31/01: Back to school: Revenge of the boomers
08/22/01: The price of connectedness
08/16/01: An anniversary without celebration
07/31/01: Wanna name my kid? Pay me a cool Mil' --- OK, a half-mil'
07/25/01: Hey, there's no television on my ice floe!
07/10/01: When nobody knew what a Heisman was
07/02/01: Business opportunities for the empathy-impaired
06/25/01: Bunker mentality: At least Archie's meanness was satire
06/18/01: Famous fathers, eat your hearts out
06/05/01: 'No comment' on Bush twins is hard to swallow
05/30/01: Veteran scratches out the hatred
05/22/01: O.J.'s genius
05/15/01: No more kidding around
05/01/01: Haunted by the past
04/24/01: I WANTED TO BELIEVE
04/16/01: Before you file that extension...
04/11/01: Ever want to break an airport agent's neck? This guy did!
04/03/01: The best role models aren't on TV
03/26/01: CAN YOU GET ANY MORE ATTENTION THAN THIS!?
03/19/01: 'March madness' is aptly named
03/07/01: I'm sorry, I apologize, I beg your forgiveness
03/05/01: Young fans' web sites become a Big Harry deal
© 2003 DFP