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 shortwave radio, pulling in signals from the West, 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. 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 piece in a Russian magazine, risking his government’s wrath.

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 National Hockey League. 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 — seemed only 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 benchwarmer.

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 Detroit: “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, 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.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. He will sign copies of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” for Mother’s Day at 7 p.m. Friday at Borders in Novi; 11 a.m. Saturday at the Open Book, 118 S. Front, Fremont, Ohio; and 2 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble, 4940 Monroe, Toledo.

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