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Igor Larionov, the oldest player in the National Hockey League, quietly celebrated his 40th birthday by having dinner at a downtown eatery with his agent Sunday night.

Balloons? Party hats?

"No," Larionov said with a smile. "It is Russian custom. You don't celebrate your 40th birthday in a loud way. You have to be quiet. Maybe 39, 41, 42, 50, you can have a lot of friends around. But 40 is a very quiet time."

With only three goals in the 15 games he's played, it's been a very quiet season for the venerable Russian centre. He returned to the Florida Panthers' lineup last week after missing nine games with a hip flexor injury suffered Nov. 4.

If age is catching up to him, it doesn't show. He's maintained 170 pounds over his 5-foot-9 frame for his entire playing career.

"When you drink two glasses of wine every day, except the game day, and eat a lot of vegetables and fruit," it is not difficult to stay trim, he said.

Larionov became a free agent last summer and signed with the Panthers after five years in Detroit. He's the only active NHL player to have won two Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals.

"The stock of tomatoes and cucumbers went down in Detroit because I was eating a lot of them," he said. "But I've just tried to treat myself the same for the last 20 years. I've had the same body weight for 24 seasons. It's working well for me."

There is conjecture this will be his final season, although he's made no firm decision. All he knows is that when he finally does pack it in he'll take a year off to spend time with his family before looking for a new challenge.

An offer from Russia to play on his homeland's 2002 Olympic team would be well received by Larionov. He declined to play in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. His dislike of the men running the system back home often kept him estranged from the national team. With different leadership for Salt Lake City, he'd love a shot at a third gold medal.

"I just enjoy every day," he said in explaining his approach to life. "I don't look too far ahead.

"I play hockey and spend time with my family."

Panthers coach Terry Murray is eager to see Larionov return to top form.

"He's a guy that's got a great deal of pride in his game," Murray said. "Physically, he's been a very healthy player throughout his career, and that allows him to be able to play in the NHL at the age of 40.

"He's got a tremendous work ethic. He's always doing more after the practice is over, off the ice. He still has his speed, still has his quickness."

The three weeks off did Larionov a world of good, Murray said. The old pro had "lost his game before the injury."

"Things are starting to come back now," Murray said. "And we need him to come back. He's an important player for us. He'll really start to make a difference in our hockey team as we move forward from here."

Forward is the only direction the Panthers can go. With a 5-11-4-4 record going into last night's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, they were dead last in the Eastern Conference.

It's quite shocking, really, considering Florida finished last season at 43-33-6 for 98 points. Being swept in the first playoff round by New Jersey was the start of the downward spiral.

Pavel Bure had scored 15 goals before skating against the Leafs. Nobody else had more than three, and the lack of offence has been a main factor in the poor first quarter.

Bure does not conceal his discontent.

"No," he replied when asked if his own success allows him to feel content. "You can't be happy if you're not winning. You have to win.

"The guys are working. They are trying to score. Everyone wants to score. Sometimes it doesn't go in. Sooner or later everybody will score. We just have to keep working. There is no other choice."

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