Instead of feathering NHL passes to fellow World Junior ace Pavel Bure in Vancouver, Larionov, 60, is making his debut as Russia’s head coach at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton.
In 2020, this IIHF Triple Gold Club member was an assistant coach under Valeri Bragin, who has since taken over the senior national team. Russia led Canada 3-1 in the third period of the final in Ostrava, Czech Republic, but the Canadians roared back to win 4-3 on Akil Thomas’s late goal.
Despite sophisticated tastes ranging from chess to wine, Larionov has never lost his thirst for hockey victories. Now, during one of the strangest years in our sport’s history, he’s aiming to revive the spirit of his early U20 successes.
The Voskresensk native established his cerebral, playmaking game in IIHF competition with the Soviet Union, winning gold medals at the 1979 World Juniors in Sweden and 1980 World Juniors in Finland.
Larionov played for some of the most famous coaches in hockey history, including Viktor Tikhonov, Scotty Bowman, and Pat Burns. However, “The Professor,” who previously worked as an NHL player agent, will put his own distinctive stamp on a high-octane team seeking Russia’s first World Junior gold medal since 2011 in Buffalo.
With five NHL first-round picks, the U20 squad represented Russia at the annual, four-team Karjala Cup in Helsinki in November. Competing against men, they surprised the hockey world by emerging victorious with wins over Finland (6-2), Sweden (2-1, SO), and the Czech Republic (3-0).
IIHF.com caught up with Larionov recently.
As a player, you won everything you could. What motivated you to come back as a coach?
The motivation is to lead the boys into the top-level competition at the World Juniors and give them guidance and confidence. To help them in terms of power and skill and domination. To be the top team, you’ve got to tick all those boxes and to play as a group, as a team. So that’s the goal. And to me, obviously, I’d like to see the Russian flag at the end of the tournament and hear the Russian anthem.
In 2015, you wrote a piece for The Players’ Tribune where you said you wished there was more creativity in today’s NHL. You said about teenage players: “Why aren’t coaches pushing them to create a masterpiece?” With this World Junior team, are you pushing them to create a masterpiece?
Absolutely. Yeah, that’s the goal. That’s the reason I was looking – for myself and my colleagues and my assistant coaches – for skill. We’re looking for maybe a different approach toward these young players. We want them to play the game they played as kids. Now they’re 18 or 19, so you’ve got to let them go through some mistakes to get the confidence back and to play the team game. So it’s all about improvising every time you step on the ice and playing the game we used to play in the Russian Five in Detroit and with the KLM unit back in the day in the Soviet Union.
So far, I can see from the tournament in November and in our camp outside Moscow, the boys are really starting to gel and really getting the concept of playing a collective game. No matter who scores, at the end of the day, when we play the right way, we’re playing for each other. So the result’s going to take care of itself.
What enabled your boys to win the Karjala Cup against many older and more experienced players?
You know what? We had no pressure. We told the boys: “It’s a privilege to be able to play hockey, and this is the situation.” They got to play against men’s teams, the national teams of Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. And I told them: “We don’t have to look at them. We have to look at how we play.” I guess they – in a short period of time – gelled and started to play well.
We made some mistakes, but at the same time, they also had good intentions and brave decisions, smart decisions. They gave us a chance to compete, to stay on the same level as those teams. At the end of the tournament, we were lucky to win all three games.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your preparations for these World Juniors?
We were taken to a facility outside Moscow. It’s very restricted, like a bubble rehearsal before the World Juniors in Edmonton. So the boys were very particular and professional in terms of staying together, no outside contacts with anybody. Right now, we’re in full gear, ready to go, and setting our minds on a good tournament.
Back in the 1980’s, with CSKA Moscow and the Soviet national team, you spent 11 months of the year training in a compound. Can you use that experience of isolation to help you in the World Junior bubble?
It might help me, but I don’t think it’s going to help the boys. You know, I was fighting against that many years ago, to give the players some freedom to enjoy the game and to be home with their families and friends.
So now, with this pandemic, it’s a new circumstance. But at the same time, you’ve got to use that opportunity to see the boys every day, talk to them, sit with them in the locker room, see them on the ice, see them in the gym and training room, and see them in the dining room. That’s also very beneficial. I’m not sure it’s going to work in the long term, but for this tournament, I hope it’s going to be a good experience and going to help us.
How did you enjoy your opportunity to work as Valeri Bragin’s assistant coach at last year’s World Juniors, and what did you learn from him?
That was a good experience to be behind the bench with a coach who knows youth hockey really well. He’s been successful at bringing medals almost every year to Russia. To me, it was kind of an introduction inside that locker room, to see the boys and see how this team trains and does certain things. I guess I’ve used that experience to create my own path with this team.
The key word is “discipline.” We have to be disciplined. We have to be mentally strong to go through any circumstances, whatever happens in the game. You can never predict what is going to happen. But we have to be willing to sacrifice, willing to be patient. I guess that one detail was missing last year, so we lost to Canada 4-3 in the final.
At camp this year, who impressed you with his work ethic and attention to detail?
I don’t think it would be fair to mention any names, but I was very pleased with lots of the boys. Because with healthy competition, it gave us opportunities to play different players and use different line combinations. Basically, the boys took it very seriously. The work ethic on the ice and in the gym and all around the facility was very impressive. Hopefully we can continue to be that way for the next three weeks in Edmonton.
This is Vasili Podkolzin’s third World Juniors. What are your expectations for your captain?
You’ve got to use that experience. That’s the key guy on our team in terms of experience and being around. He’s got two medals, bronze and silver. So only one piece is missing: gold. Hopefully, all together, we can work and fight and entertain and get that success from this tournament.
In your opinion, how much has starting goalie Yaroslav Askarov improved since his last World Juniors?
The goalie situation is handled by Nikolai Khabibulin. I talk to Nik, I talk to Yaroslav. Once again, it’s all about patience and growing up and being more mature and experienced. He’s been a tremendous professional. It’s a pleasure to have him around.
These types of players give us hope for the future, because if we can create players like that, not just one but a few of them, we’re going to have much better success.
Young guys today love to play video games. Have you convinced any of them to play chess instead?
Well, that’s the plan! We’ve got to find a way not to think about hockey all the time. So we have a plan to take some board games into the hospitality room, so the boys can sometimes refresh their minds, get away from hockey.
Chess would be one of the games, but it takes time to study, to learn the strategy. We’re going to have a few games in the room, so hopefully the boys are going to be not just sitting on the PlayStation all the time, but will have some other games. That’s part of being in the bubble.
In 1979, we played against a very good strong, Swedish side, and we won 7-5 in that final game. That was like a roller coaster, a thriller, an up-and-down game. That kind of experience shapes your mentality, shapes your hockey life.
In 1980, it was beating Finland in Helsinki. We played against Jari Kurri and Reijo Ruotsalainen. There were thousands of people at the old Jaahalli building. I ended up scoring the winning goal in that game. It’s always nice to be able to play during Christmas time and the beginning of January, to start the year off with success.
What did you think about your son Igor Larionov II’s decision to try out for and sign with the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star?
The hockey in North America has been at a halt. Nobody’s playing. So basically, he was getting that tryout contract and played a few games. Then he got sick with COVID-19 and he was missing two and a half or three weeks now.
So right now, he’s getting back into shape, and I’m happy for him. He’s a good hockey player with a good hockey mind. Hopefully the coaches can use him properly there in Kunlun.
Your World Junior team is playing in Edmonton, where Wayne Gretzky spent his best NHL years. When was the last time you talked to Wayne?
The last time we talked was quite a few years ago. I’m not sure exactly when, but maybe 10 or 12 years ago. I’ve been travelling and he’s been busy with his life. I’ve been in Detroit and he’s been in Los Angeles.
The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup this year with Nikita Kucherov, Mikhail Sergachev, and Andrei Vasilevski playing huge roles. What did you think of their performances?
First of all, I was happy for those boys. They got the toughest, most difficult chore in all of hockey. It’s the Stanley Cup. So it’s not easy, but it’s very rewarding to go through the ups and downs and win. I’m so happy for those three young men, who were key parts of their team’s success in goaltending, defence, and offence.
And I was happy for Stevie Y [Steve Yzerman], who was the GM for many years in Tampa. He built a really good team, and credit goes to him as well. He started a movement in Tampa. The last three years, that team is playing sensational hockey.
How did you celebrate your 60th birthday on 3 December?
I was in the camp. There were no celebrations. I’m not allowed to go anywhere. So I was basically with the boys in the camp, drinking tea, at practice, and watching video.
What would it mean for you personally to win Russia’s first World Junior gold medal since 2011?
That would be great. I don’t want to be overconfident. We respect every team. We’re one of them. We’ve got 10 teams in the tournament, and Russia is no better than anybody else. Everybody starts from scratch with zero wins. The goal, obviously, and the dream for everybody is to play well and be in the top spot on 5 January.