BRING IT ON!WINGS HOPE CUP FINALS WILL BE ONE FOR THE AGES

In hockey, as in life, the difference between the old and the young is patience; only in hockey, the young have more of it.

“They think ‘We have time, we can grow, losing is not so bad,’ ” says Detroit’s Igor Larionov, the oldest player in the NHL. “An older team says,
‘We cannot waste this chance. We have to do it now.’ “

And so, tonight, with clocks ticking down and momentum ramping up, the Detroit Red Wings begin the last leg of their last waltz, the Stanley Cup finals. Make no mistake, if they win it all, this veteran team, maybe the best roster in NHL history, will not be back as currently constructed. Their goaltender, Dominik Hasek, arguably the most irreplaceable man on the roster, may well retire. Others will be cut for expenses. Others will slow with age and injury.

And one or two may decide this is simply too good an ending to rewrite.

“Do you think, if you win the Cup, you should go out on the high note?” I ask Larionov.

“That’s a very good question,” he says. “So it requires some thought. I will think about it after the season is over, in my house in Florida. I will have maybe a glass of wine, sit by the pool, talk about it with my family.”

Wait a minute. Did he say a glass of wine? In Florida? By a pool?

What, no shuffleboard?

Well. He is 41 years old. He is also symbolic of this Red Wings team: They may not all be drinking wine by the pool, but they aren’t hosting kegger parties, either. This is a team so top-heavy with experience that nine of its players are older than the Carolina Hurricanes’ coach. The Wings have 40-year-old Chris Chelios, 37-year-olds Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull and Hasek, 36-year-olds Luc Robitaille, Steve Duchesne and Uwe Krupp, and 35-year-old Fredrik Olausson. . . .

And then there is Larionov. He deserves special mention. He is a medical marvel, an anathema to aging, a wrinkle-free face and hair that seems to have been washed with Johnson’s Baby Shampoo. He is the oldest man still standing in the playoffs. He is the oldest in the entire league. His nickname is neither Bubba nor Bammer nor Jammer nor Crash.

It is “The Professor.”

And while most of this Red Wings team will point to Yzerman, the captain, as its inspiration and role model, the captain often points to Larionov as a guy he looks up to.

You want to know why a Stanley Cup means so much to these Detroit players?

Consider one man’s story.

From Russia with love

Raised in the small Russian town of Voskresensk, Igor Larionov was coached by a Jewish man who, unable to work with the biggest and strongest, had to develop the bodies he had. Larionov, who is barely 5-feet-9, learned to be smart as well as strong. He was quick. He passed well. He was chosen, as a teenager, over bigger, stronger players for the Soviet elite team. And soon he joined the coveted Red Army team, the best of the best.

“We had one day off per year,” he says. “And we trained three times a day. One of the drills we had there was to run laps around a (quarter-mile) track. And you had to do 12 in a row under 70 seconds.”

He pauses.

“And if you couldn’t do it anymore, you were considered too old to be a hockey player.”

Larionov shakes his head. He knows that were he still under that system, he’d be out of the game. That mentality, with the rigid,
“these-are-our-rules-and-don’t-you-question-them” Soviet system, was one factor that eventually drove Larionov to seek other pastures.

That journey eclipses any story you’ll hear in these Stanley Cup finals. Larionov had to fight against a dictatorial Soviet coaching staff — even as he was leading teams to world championships and Olympic gold medals. He had to fight to get his release to leave the country. Even when he came to the NHL in 1989, he had to fight to keep a fair share of his money. At one point, he went to Switzerland to play, because of the Soviet Union’s interference with his contracts.

This is a man who, at some point in his life, left a country, a culture, a team, a society, his friends, his family, his language and his mentors — all for the chance to play for what he’s playing for tonight.

And that’s only the start of his tale.

Igor and Sergei

In Detroit, Larionov became part of the celebrated Russian Five, with longtime friend and teammate Slava Fetisov, Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov. They were a marvel, a whirling dervish of a unit, spinning and weaving and outskating entire teams. Together, they won a Stanley Cup, Detroit’s first in 42 years.

That was five years ago. “Now,” Larionov says, “along with Sergei, I feel like the last one left.

“I spoke with Kozzie last week. He is gone overseas for the summer.

“Slava, as you know, is now a very big shot in Russian government. He is a minister. I had to call to make an appointment to talk to him.

“And Vladdie. . . .”

He pauses. Vladdie Konstantinov, severely injured in the post-Stanley Cup limousine accident, may be the biggest reminder of all not to waste a chance at a championship, not to take things for granted.

“He comes by the locker room,” Larionov says. “He is in good spirits. I speak to him in Russian, but he keeps answering me in English.”

Meanwhile, Larionov goes on, suiting up, playing, showering, training. Most of the Russian stars he came up with are gone. Many are coaching, or sitting behind a desk. Larionov, an old man in a younger man’s game, has adjusted to so many different teams and coaches, that, at this point, he does his thing, eats his food, works on his own body, and simply accepts everyone else as they are.

“That is what makes this team so unique,” he says. “It has the perfect balance. Players accept one another. We have all been doing it for so long.

“Maybe I have been taught to be serious and never smile before a game. This is the old Russian way. But what am I going to do with Brendan Shanahan, who is joking, or Brett Hull, who is talking, talking, talking? Am I going to change them?”

He laughs. “I don’t think I can tell Shanny or Hull anything. So I accept. We all accept.”

And collectively, they stitch the team quilt, a big thing heavy with experience and desire, that may weigh on them as the series goes on. The Carolina Hurricanes are a decidedly lighter team — any victory, any success, will feel like a pair of wings. The Wings will be fighting a legacy of their own creation.

Then again, they have some experience at that.

“How have you stayed in such good shape all these years?” I ask Larionov.

“I always eat healthy,” he says. “Salads, cucumbers, tomatoes, vegetables.”

“But in Russia, all those years, weren’t they eating meats and potatoes?”

“They were,” he says. “They have salad and then those things. I like to take my time eating. I like to enjoy my food. But with Red Army team, we must eat very quickly and get back on the bus for another practice.

“So I am just finishing my salad — and they say, ‘It is time to go!’ “

The oldest player in hockey laughs — at the memory, the journey, maybe even the irony. Someone is always in a rush, someone always wants to go slower. Tonight, at 8 o’clock, the two forces meet again, and we find out if patience is a virtue or a consolation prize.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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