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Saturday, 25 May 2013

TBC: Larionov

I have read a few books published some time ago, and they usually end up being more of my favorite tomes thanks to the new perspective they provide. Today's entry in Teebz's Book Club is no different as I was lucky enough to find this book at a local thrift store while searching for something else. Teebz's Book Club is proud to present Larionov, written by Igor Larionov, Jim Taylor, and Leonid Reizer, and published by Codner Books in 1990. While a book about "The Professor" may seem more like an archive of hockey history, Larionov is an amazing look at his rise to prominence in Russia before his eventual escape from Tikhonov's grip to join the Vancouver Canucks. This alone had me intrigued.

From the book's dust jacket, "Igor Larionov was one of the true superstars of world hockey, centering the Soviet Union's famed KLM Line of Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov. Larionov, wife Elena and daughter Alyonka now live in Vancouver, where he is playing his second season with Vancouver Canucks." Larionov went on to win three Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, but also played with the San Jose Sharks, Florida Panthers, and the New Jersey Devils before returning to Russia to join the KHL club SKA St. Petersburg as director of hockey operations. He is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Also from the dust jacket, "Jim Taylor is a nationally-known sports columnist with the Vancouver Province. He is the author of four previous books: Dirty 30 (with Jim Young), Inside the Dynasty (with Dan Kepley), Gretzky: From the Backyard Rink to the Stanley Cup (with Walter Gretzky), and Man in Motion (with Rick Hansen)." Taylor was voted in as a member of the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame in 2005 as a writer. He started with Victoria's The Daily Colonist in 1954 before making a jump to the Vancouver Sun in 1966 and then the Vancouver Province in 1979 where he wrote for the next 17 years. He retired in 2001 after writing for six years with the Calgary Sun. Taylor recently received the 2010 Bruce Hutchison Lifetime Achievement Award for BC journalism. He still lives on the west coast today.

There is still a lot of mystery surrounding the first Soviet players to arrive in the NHL, but books such as Larionov and Tal Pinchevsky's Breakaway have begun to peel away this mystery by providing factual and biographical accounts of the struggles these players faced on a daily basis in regimes for which they cared not. The story told within the covers of Larionov is one of an independent thinker in Igor Larionov who saw the faults of the hockey dictator in Viktor Tikhonov and the way he ran the hockey program under the Red Army moniker.

Larionov's hockey start wasn't made in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Instead, he got his start in Voskresensk, a small industry city approximately 88 kilometers southeast of Moscow. The small team there, Khimik, produced amazing hockey teams under the tutelage of Nikolai Semenovich Epshtein that would defeat the larger state-run teams such as Dynamo Moscow, Central Soviet Red Army (CSRA), and Sport Red Army from Leningrad. In a long season where a playoff series would expose Khimik as one of the smaller teams, the bigger teams won. But during the season, Khimik would pull off the upsets with regularity as teams would often leave Voskresensk bewildered and frustrated. Igor Larionov learned his hockey here.

One can only advance so far in a small city team, though, so Larionov reluctantly agreed to join the Central Red Army in order to play hockey and possibly star with the Soviet Union's National team. It was in 1981 that Igor Larionov decided to leave for Archangel, the Soviet training center for the CSRA hockey team, where he would first meet Viktor Vasilevich Tikhonov. The training schedule was rigorous if not brutal: ten months per year, the players would be sequestered at Archangel to prepare for games. There was no contact with family, friends, or colleagues outside of the single phone at the end of the dormitory. Usage for that phone was an hour per day for the entire team!

As the Soviet Union's National team gained notoriety through their impressive wins and seemingly unbeatable style, cracks began forming in the solidarity of the team as promises made by Tikhonov to his players were rarely kept. Even if they were kept, there were always conditions and concessions made on these promises so that the full promise was never kept. This drove Larionov and his linemates crazy as they felt they had earned what had been promised with each win.

The relationships between the players was examined in length by Igor Larionov as well. His relationships with Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov were entirely different, but he respected each man for their own style and personality. Vyacheslav Fetisov is held in high regard by Larionov, and he speaks very highly of the three men mentioned. The one man that Larionov holds a lot of contempt for is Alexei Kasatonov. He makes no excuses for the reasons he dislikes Kasatonov, and he holds nothing back when speaking about his former linemate.

If there is one thing that stands out about Larionov in Larionov, it's his description of how he and his linemates played hockey. There was a paragraph that stood out where he quotes Slava Fetisov in describing how the KLM line played hockey, and it really provides some excellent insight as to how this unit operated.
I say improvisation. That is the word upon which we five built our play. Fetisov often compared it to music. "To me, improvisation for a hockey player is the same as for a jazz musician," he said. "But for the whole line to improvise, it is possible only when every player is strong, well versed in his tactical scope and rich in technical repertoire, when all together they understand one another with half a word and half a glance and even without one of the other, when to everyone it seems tedious to move only according to the plan of the hockey textbook, as we say, in the groove."
How perfect is that in describing the play of that line from 1981 until 1987? This is the kind of deep thinking and thoughtful prose that Larionov has through its pages, and it was a delight to read. In terms of having the nickname of "The Professor", Igor Larionov lives up to his anointed name.

Larionov covers a number of topics in Larionov - from Mogilny's defection to his meeting and marriage of Elena to the joy of finally voicing his thoughts on Tikhonov's reign over Soviet hockey - and he does so in an eloquent, intelligent way. The thoughts on the 149 pages in the book are extraordinary to read when you consider how the western world knows so little about what was happening behind the Iron Curtain when it came to sports. Larionov is detailed in his descriptions, capturing the essence of what it was like in the former Soviet Union as a high-level hockey player. Larionov is an excellent read, and it absolutely deserves Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval!

Look for Larionov at your local library, or see if you can find this gem at a used bookstore or thrift store like I did. I guarantee you that you'll look at Igor Larionov's career in a whole new light after reading this book!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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