First of all, whatever Igor Larionov eats, I want some. Whatever he drinks, I want some of that. His sleep patterns, his workout, his oxygen intake, I want it all.
How someone like Larionov — who has lived enough for two lifetimes — can still look like a first-year grad student is beyond me. He has jumped countries, time zones, teams and rosters. He has played under communism, socialism and democracy. He has played for almost no money, played for lots of money, played when half his money was sent back to his native country. He has had to learn two completely different languages, two completely different styles of hockey, two completely different cultures, and three national anthems.
He is 36.
And he doesn’t have a wrinkle on his face.
“I don’t know what it is,” says Larionov, in the Wings’ locker room Thursday. “I watch what I eat. I go to bed at 10 or 11 o’clock.
“I learned when I was a boy in Russia, you cannot be really good at one thing if you’re trying to be good at three things. So I concentrate on just one.”
The one is hockey. The rest falls by the wayside. No late nights. No long interviews. No running around here and there. And yet, this simplicity of schedule belies the complexity of the man keeping it. How many hockey players talk about the difficulty of being an American father when you were raised a Russian child? How many hockey players respond to a question about the media by quoting a Russian poet named Pushkin?
“Pushkin said, ‘When someone criticizes you, you should not blame him, and when someone compliments you, you should not blame him, either,’ ” Larionov says.
He squints his eyes and shakes his head.
“It sounds better in Russian,” he says.
The Russian way of life
Well, I’m sure Larionov sounds better in Russian, too. What’s remarkable is how good he sounds in English, his second language, and how well he plays North American hockey, his second hockey life. A two-time Olympic veteran, and one of the original big names of the Russian Red Army to jump to the NHL, Larionov is still one of the smartest players on the ice.
And when the Russian Five are weaving magic for the Wings, make no mistake, it’s Larionov with the wand. He may not always score the goal, but chances are he was involved in making it happen.
“He’s like a point guard in basketball,” says captain Steve Yzerman. “He moves around so well, and he keeps the puck on his stick for so long.
“His Russian style, you see that in the way he curls backwards. He draws defenders to him. The North American game is more ‘get as far as you can, don’t turn back.’ The Russian and European style is more like a carousel, go around and around until one of the horses shoots away on his own.”
Well, isn’t that a perfect metaphor for Larionov’s career? His grandfather spent 14 years in prison camp under Stalin. Larionov’s father taught his son to mind his words, because speaking up only got you in trouble.
But Igor saw his light in his grandfather’s spirit of perseverance. And so he didn’t keep quiet. He complained about the dictatorship of the Soviet hockey system. He complained about the 11-month regimen that kept players from their wives. He told reporters he looked forward to playing in the NHL.
As a result, he was barred from traveling out of Russia for two years. Can you imagine your country saying you cannot leave?
But Larionov, it turns out, was the carousel horse that Yzerman spoke about, bobbing up and down, just waiting to shoot away.
Always thinking out there
He got his chance in 1989, when he joined the Vancouver Canucks, under the stipulation that half his money be sent back to Russia for youth training. (He later discovered this was not what the money was used for, and he left the NHL for a year in protest.)
Meanwhile, Larionov has been hailed by every team that has him. He was a go-to guy with Vancouver, a veteran leader with San Jose, and here in Detroit, he is the quiet, thoughtful quarterback of the Russian unit.
Who looks like he’s 25.
“He looks younger than I do,” says Yzerman, who is actually five years his junior. Perhaps it’s this American culture that keeps him on his toes. Larionov has two daughters, 10 and 6 years old, and he ponders how to raise them in The World of MTV.
“I know what I was taught as a child,” he says, “but that was in the Russian culture. My children, I’m not sure what they’re learning.”
Something tells me he’ll figure it out. When they lived in San Jose, Igor’s wife, Elena, was worried about earthquakes. So she got a map and studied the fault lines, and they bought a house that was as far from unstable ground as possible.
Always thinking. Always weaving, bobbing and curling backward. Tonight begins another difficult playoff chapter, another step toward the last thing Larionov wants and maybe the only hockey treasure he doesn’t have — a Stanley Cup. It’s a long road.
Then again, he’s managed to elude Father Time. How hard can the Mighty Ducks be?