Like many other international greats, Igor Larionov made his first impression at the IIHF World U20 Championship. The superb playmaking centre scored 12 points in 10 games en route to gold medals with the Soviet Union in 1979 and 1980. That was just the prelude to a brilliant career that would see him earn Triple Gold Club membership. In 1997, the two-time Olympic champion and four-time World Champion captured his first of three Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings.
Retired since 2004, Larionov nowadays works as a player agent, representing top Russian prospects like Nail Yakupov, chosen first overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2012 NHL draft.
IIHF.com captured Larionovís thoughts after a Vancouver press conference on November 13 promoting the Subway Super Series. The six-game, cross-Canada series Ė a prelude to the World Juniors Ė saw Russiaís U20 squad prevail by a total score of 10 points to 8 over QMJHL, OHL, and WHL all-star teams.
What are your feelings about the World Juniors and the preparation the Subway Super Series offers?
The World Juniors are the best time to showcase yourself, because itís the best against the best. When youíre 18 or 19 and guys are playing against one another, I think itís the best hockey you can see.
Whoís going to be the next one for the new generation?
If you talk to the Russian coaches, building the team for the Subway Super Series, thatís the biggest test for the boys. If you do well here, you can play in the World Juniors at Christmas. When youíre going against the best in North America, thatís what your futureís going to be. Itís the best exhibition games they can imagine, to play in North America a month and a half before the U20 World Championship.
Are you surprised about the success of Nail Yakupov with the KHLís Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk this season?
I told Nail before the lockout, you should come to Detroit to train with a couple of my players. He came for two weeks and spent every day on the ice. I sent him to the gym with my guys too. The way he was working out, the way he was getting ready for the season, the way he wants to be the best, I told him: ďDonít worry. If the lockout starts, youíre going back to Russia to play in the KHL. Youíve never played against men, but youíre going to be fine.Ē I know the league, and I know Nail and what he can do. Iím not surprised.
You saw Pavel Bure inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame earlier this year. You also attended his Hockey Hall of Fame induction in Toronto. What was your reaction?
That was special. Meeting Pavel for the first time, he was 16 when he came to the Red Army team. He was a young boy. You knew right away heíd have a great future. He had a lot of skill, a lot of life in his mind and legs and hands. Obviously, when he came to Vancouver, I knew he was going to be special for the city. A player with that caliber and skill and flashiness could turn the city around, scoring great goals. [Now] the Hockey Hall of Fame and the entire world paid tribute to his accomplishments. It was a special day for him, his family, and Russian hockey.
Do you ever wish youíd come to the NHL when you were younger?
I have no regrets. I won two Olympics, a few World Championships, and a Canada Cup. I played on the greatest team in history with Red Army, with great players on the KLM Line. Obviously it would have been nice to come here when I was 19 or 20 years old and get my start when I was young and full of energy. You can play your best hockey when youíre young. But I played till I was 44, and I played 14 seasons in the NHL. So thatís 27 years altogether. Itís not a bad career.
Young Russian players today celebrate goals much more flamboyantly than their Soviet predecessors. How do you feel about that?
I donít think itís bad. Like Phil [Esposito has] said, we never smiled when we scored goals. But itís a new generation. They like to celebrate. I donít see any problem. When you score a goal, itís a little masterpiece, created by yourself and your linemates. Itís a joy for the young people.
How important is NHL participation at the Sochi Olympics?
I think there should be no issue for the players to come to Sochi, because itís the best way to promote the game around the world and to sell the game and have the best TV ratings for any company during the Olympics. The Russian guys came to Salt Lake and Vancouver, so the Canadian and American guys should be coming to Russia as well. Itís better for the game. Youíve got to be crazy or foolish not to play in the Olympics or not to send the best players.
Vyacheslav Fetisov has recently discussed some ambitious ideas for the KHL: spending more money on stars, expanding into Asia, and staging an annual meeting between the Stanley Cup and Gagarin Cup champions.
Itís a good plan. But itís easy to say, but hard to realize. Youíve got to have a lot of money. Right now, they have 26 teams in the KHL, and I believe there should be less than 26 teams. Expanding, I donít think, is a good idea. I think you have to have a good product, like 12 teams. And slowly expand up to 14 or 16. You know, itís going to take time. Thereís got to be competition between the teams.
Are you ever amazed by how your life has turned out? You started out as a young player under Communism and now youíre a player agent in North America.
I never look back. I just live a day at a time. I try to help the young players, and raise my family. The girls [Alyonka and Diana] are 25 and 21 now, and my son [Igor] is 14, playing in Detroit. Iím traveling around, watching the games, and helping the young guys make less mistakes. Iím trying to guide them to be good hockey players and good people.