. 1990-1996

18 1996 . 
Russian Wings playing sweet jazz on ice; Five-man electrifying band revives glory days of Soviet hockey // The Gazette. Montreal


Igor Larionov - the Lenin of the Russian Revolution that has come to North American hockey in the 1990s - is usually a man of many words and complex thoughts, a hockey player who is expected one day to return home and run for political office.

Yet, he has but one word to describe what he and 45 countrymen have brought to the NHL.

``Finesse,'' he says.

``That's it - finesse.''

Larionov is the centre and key component of the NHL's first-ever five-man Russian unit, the Detroit Red Wings finally trying what worked so brilliantly for former Soviet teams as far back as the 1972 Hockey Summit.

Since the 35-year-old arrived in Detroit in a trade with the San Jose Sharks in October, the Red Wings have risen to become the No. 1 team in the National Hockey League and the current favorite for victory in the Stanley Cup final.

It is a team with a brilliant Canadian captain - Steve Yzerman - and hockey's best defenceman, Canadian Paul Coffey, but it is the Russians that have captured the attention of the rest of the league.

In the scoring summaries, it is the names from the five-man unit that dominate the Detroit results. In last week's 9-4 humiliation of the Los Angeles Kings, the Detroit Russians totalled 11 points; L.A.'s Wayne Gretzky had none.

So successful has Detroit coach Scotty Bowman's experiment been that the Red Wing's unit has been compared with the greatest five-man hockey unit in Soviet hockey: Vladimir Krutov, Sergei Makarov, Alexei Kasatonov - and, once again, Slava Fetisov and Larionov.

Larionov - twice declared over-the-hill by NHL teams - says this season has been ``the best months of my career,'' comparable only to those years in the early 1980s when the Soviets dominated the world championships and the Olympics.

He had come to the Sharks in 1993 after playing in Switzerland, where he had gone after limited success with the Vancouver Canucks; and though he and the aging Makarov, now out of the NHL, had led the Sharks to two impressive playoff runs, he had grown disenchanted with his ice time in San Jose, and the Sharks had dealt him to Detroit for sniper Ray Sheppard.

It was said, at the time, that Larionov's effectiveness had come to an end. It turned out he was only beginning again.

His young teammate, Vyacheslav Kozlov, had but one goal when Larionov arrived. He is now headed for 40. He has helped return Sergei Fedorov to the level that, two seasons ago, earned the young Russian the Hart Trophy as the league's best player.

Larionov, says Kozlov, ``doesn't need to be the one to score.''

It is a style of play, as much as the result of play, that has some observers likening it to ``hockey as jazz.'' Spontaneous and creative, it is the antithesis of dull dump-and-chase, neutral-zone-trap hockey.

Players from the former Soviet Union - mostly Russian, with a handful of Ukrainian and Latvian players - number less than 50 and make up only 7.2 per cent of the NHL population. Yet their effect has been profound.

The Russians - along with the other Europeans -have brought cycling to the NHL, where all three forwards will sometimes find themselves in the same corner, circling and dropping the puck to each other until an opening is found. They have changed the perception of the game from up-and-down to lateral circling and folding in, to patience rather than panic.

There is so much flexibility in Detroit's five-man unit that Fedorov has periodically shifted back to defence, the results as astonishing as Red Kelly's shift from defence to forward more than three decades earlier.

``There's not anybody in the game who could change like that,'' says Coffey.

Fedorov is the Russian that attracts the most attention among the five, a European whose popularity is rivaled only by Vancouver's young Russian star Pavel Bure and the Pittsburgh Penguins' young Czech, Jaromir Jagr.

It has not passed Coffey's attention - nor that of others who examine the NHL's annual scoring race for more than goals and assists - that a dramatic shift has taken place. With rare exception, the best players today are either aging Canadians or young Europeans.

Those who meet Fedorov away from his hockey equipment are often astonished at how fine his features are, how delicate his hands.

People say he reminds them more of a ballet star than a hockey star, and it is an accidental comparison with some historical merit.

Tarasov Was Inspired

The reason the Russian style seems so different is because it has always been so different.

Hockey in Canada goes back more than a century, hockey in Russia only to 1946. All the Soviets took were the rules of the game, and then made up their own instructions for how to play it. As the father of Soviet Hockey, Anatoli Tarasov, once put it, ``To copy is to always be second best.''

Tarasov's inspiration came not from Howie Morenz, but from the great Russian actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski. He viewed hockey as art, with the coach as choreographer, the players as performers. The principles of dance and piano - endless practice, repeated movements, perfected technique - would create a base from which true artistry could grow.

It is no coincidence that attitudes toward practice are so different between North American and European players. North Americans suffer practices, Europeans embrace them.

Around the NHL, there are now aficionados who come to sit and watch the likes of Larionov and Fedorov and Jagr - as well as Ottawa's Alexei Yashin - do nothing but practice with a puck.

Tarasov deliberately avoided coming to study Canadian hockey until he had his own system in place. As he put it, ``We newcomers should not have been allowed to watch too much Canadian hockey.''

Within eight years, the Soviets were World Champions, and he came, finally, to Canada in 1957, where hockey people laughed at his ideas.

They were still laughing in 1972, when tiny, poorly-equipped Soviet players were not expected to win a game against the NHL's best - only to stretch the Summit Series to the last 34 seconds of the eighth game.

``We were told,'' Canadian star Phil Esposito said years later, ``that their players could skate, but not that well, and they could shoot but not that hard. Wow!''

The great artist of that series was a man who stood only 5-foot-8 and weighed 165 pounds, Valery Kharlamov. Tarasov claimed that Kharlamov had never scored two similar goals, that each one, like an original painting, was his latest work of art.

``I like to play beautifully,'' Kharlamov would say. It is the same phrase Alexei Yashin sometimes uses.

Dr. Yasha Smushkin, who has been teaching Russian hockey technique in Toronto since the 1970s, says that Russians ``believe the puck is very smart. We say the puck is a woman - if she likes you, she will dance with you.''

This is what Larionov could do. When he was a great star with Red Army, those who idolized him included the likes of Bure and Fedorov and Yashin. ``It was my dream to play like him,'' says Yashin.

But Larionov had another influence, and only recently is it becoming recognized - though little understood.

It was Larionov, along with Fetisov, who led the Soviet players revolt against authority. He demanded the right to leave and try his luck in the NHL. They not only turned him down, they revoked his visa for two years. And he and Fetisov both eventually refused to play for the tyrannical Red Army coach, Viktor Tikhonov.

They inspired others to stand up for what they believe, and the hard bargaining of both Yashin and Bure may well have its roots in this early revolt, as well as a Russian tendency to not be overly-impressed with the limited imaginations of most NHL coaches.

The first wave of Russians came to the NHL in 1989, with the Soviet empire in shambles. They were older players and did not excel, apart from a controversial rookie-of-the-year award to the then 31-year-old Makarov.

They were still being called ``ice robots,'' interchangeable parts of the old Soviet system, and unable to adapt.

Many, like Don Cherry, were unimpressed. ``You can put me down as a bigot or a racist,'' he said in the middle of the 1992-93 season, ``but I'm going to give you a fact you can't argue with. They don't bring them over here to hit, to block shots, or to back-check. And God forbid they ever fight. They're over here for one thing. Points. And there wasn't one in the top 20 scoring last year. Case closed.''

Soon, however, the case unravelled. Alexander Mogilny was the first of the younger generation to arrive. Then Fedorov and Bure, soon they were with nearly every team, soon it was accepted wisdom that you had to have a Russian on the power play.

Constantine Acquiesced

Larionov taught the younger generation they had their own opinions and that they sometimes knew best. When he returned to the Sharks, he and Makarov simply ignored the defensive rant-ings of Kevin Constantine, then head coach.

``If the other team doesn't have the puck,'' Larionov patiently explained, ``we don't need to play defence.'' Constantine, to his credit, gave up and let them play as they saw fit, and the Sharks success soared.

Such fierce independence went against the grain of North American hockey, where the lines of authority have a century of tradition behind them. Larionov, however, was merely doing in North America what he had done in Russia when he had spoken out against Tikhonov and said, ``He doesn't treat his players like men.''

In many hockey circles, Russian players are considered to have an ``attitude'' problem.

In fact, having found their footing, they might only have been finding their voice as well. When Fetisov came to the Red Wings from New Jersey, he called his former teammates ``ice robots.'' The situation had come full circle.

``I have more possibility to skate freely,'' Fetisov says of the Red Wings. This, he says, is ``my kind of creative hockey.''

Coffey believes that what is happening is that the two styles are blending, and that the Red Wings are simply the prime example. ``There's been a lot of spill,'' says Coffey.

Larionov agrees, but he is far from convinced that there is not more change to come.

The Russian Revolution has had its effect, he says.

``But it's still not enough.''