Igor Larionov is one of Russia's greatest hockey heroes, a member of the Hall of Fame and one of only five players in history to win the Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal, a world championship, a world junior championship and a Canada Cup. Also known as the Professor because of his cerebral approach, Larionov and Slava Fetisov spearheaded the move to get Russian players into the NHL in the old Soviet Union days. Now a player agent and a wine maker, Larionov spoke to the Globe and Mail's Eric Duhatschek about the Russian team's challenges going into the 2014 men's Olympic tournament, which begins Wednesday.
Duhatschek: Last time around, Canada had an inordinate amount of pressure to win on home ice in Vancouver and did it. Is it the same in Russia?
Larionov: "Yes. Since the last Olympics in Vancouver, all they've been talking about is the rematch. Nobody exists in world hockey or Olympics, but Russia and Canada, which is a big mistake, to think like that. There are more than two teams going for gold. Everybody is talking about that one terrible loss – 7-3 – and what a disgrace and a disaster for Russian hockey it was. The pressure was created four years ago and now it's time to show what they can do. Obviously, it's going to be a tough task, because the Russian team is a mix of KHL and NHL guys again. Canada has a strong team, as does the U.S., Sweden, Finland, the Czechs, and even Switzerland. It's been talked in the press, by the fans and all the people in the nation. It's going to be just like it was in Canada. Only one medal matters, the hockey gold medal."
Duhatschek: Who do you see as the difference makers on the Russian team? For many, Alex Ovechkin is the face of Russian hockey in the same way Sidney Crosby is the face of Canadian hockey.
Larionov: "I'm not looking for (Evgeni) Malkin, Ovechkin, (Pavel) Datsyuk to carry the whole team, in the same way I don't think (Jonathan) Toews or (Patrick) Kane or Crosby has to carry their teams either. This is a different scale of tournament. It takes 20 guys to win. There are 12 days of competition from the first game to the last game, so you have to forget about your ego and you have to play for the team. Last time, Crosby scored the Golden Goal but Canada had 20 guys who could be a hero every night. That's what Russia's gotta to do – the same thing – to be able to compete against those top teams."
Duhatschek: Your old roommate Zinetula Bilyeletdinov, who has one of the greatest names in hockey history, is coaching the Russian team. We know him a little from his time as an assistant coach in Winnipeg and Phoenix. Have you talked to him about what lies ahead?
Larionov: "Yes, at the world junior tournament in Ufa last year. In the Russian system, you cannot coach a team in the KHL. You have to be just the Russian national team coach. So the last few years, he's been on the sidelines. He's been watching and traveling and evaluating players and making some choices. Now it's crunch time. He's got 25 guys he's chosen and now we'll see if he was right.
Duhatschek: Has he ever faced pressure like this?
Larionov: "No, first time. Mike Babcock it's going to be second time around and all the staff he has – Kenny Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff, Stevie Y and his crew, they've all been around. Right now, this is the biggest event and the biggest tournament for the Russian team in a century and it's going to be played on Russian soil. There's going to be a lot there for him to handle. The players he's chosen, they have to perform for him."
Duhatschek: Do you make predictions?
Larionov: "I don't. I remember one year at world championships in Quebec, Rick Nash threw the puck over the boards and it was a game delay penalty and five-against-three in overtime and Russia won the gold medal when (Ilya) Kovalchuk scored. So things like that, you can't predict or anticipate. One bad goal, one bad bounce and all of a sudden, it's over. Or if (goalies such as) Hiller gets hot for Switzerland or Bobrovsky or Varlamov, what can you do? It's hard to say who's going to end on top. People are choosing Russia, Canada, the U.S., Sweden or the Czechs as favorites, but you never know. That's what the Olympics are all about. Somebody has to be in top form mentally, physically and respond in the moment."
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