Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Greatest Red Wings of MY Time - #14

I flipped the calendar in my office yesterday, and discovered to my amazement that it is August. I believe we have entered what is normally known as the "dog days" of summer. However, I prefer to think of it as "1 less month before hockey starts". Obviously, as we get closer to the season, we'll be doing previews and other things related to the start of the season. Therefore, I'm going to try and get this series out a little more frequently.

First, we need to address the big news in Red Wing Nation; that being that Mike Modano has finally reached a decision and will sign with the Red Wings on Thursday. The reports are that he will sign a 1 year deal for $1.25M, leaving the Wings with a little over $2M in cap space to sign Helm and Abby. Now, I've made my views on this known: I would love to see Modano in a Wings jersey, as long as it is not at the expense of the younger guys. In a salary cap world, the future is important, and getting the players you project to be part of the team for 3+ years locked up to cap-friendly contracts is vitally important (see: Blackhawks, Chicago for how not to operate under these conditions). The Wings don't have to go "all-in" to try and win a Cup in a given year because 1) they've won 4 in the last 15 years and 2) the current nucleus the Wings have in place is enough to keep them contending for a Cup every year. Modano's signing will give them one of the best 3rd line centers in the NHL, and if he's not up for the grind of playing up the middle, he can always get out on the wing. He also beefs up the 2nd PP unit, as he can play the point and be that coveted "right hand shot". Maybe he'll hit the net every once in a while. We'll have more on this as it happens (man, did I sound like a reporter there or what?)

Anyway, we move on with our series today, with #14 on the list.

Igor Larionov

Pertinent Stats: 539 GP, 89 G, 308 A, 397 P, +102
Awards: None
Stanley Cups: 3 - 1997, 1998, 2002

I'm wondering how Igor's placement will be met. I imagine the reaction could range from "why is he on the list" to "he's way too low". Truth be told, this is probably one of the guys I struggled most with. But, he ended up in this position, but let's face facts: just getting on this list should be cause for pride in itself.

The Professor. What a great nickname for a guy who just looked smart. If this man told me something, I would believe it, simply because he looks like a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist. Besides Yzerman and Lidstrom, I would consider Igor to be probably the smartest player the Wings have ever had. It was obvious from watching him play that he had an innate sense of the game, honed from years of playing with the Red Army. He was brought to the Wings in a trade for Ray Sheppard at the start of the 1995-96 season, and immediately found success playing on the 3rd line. Igor was always more of a playmaker than scoring, only cracking the 15 goal plateau once (in '96). However, what he lacked in goal scoring he made up for in playmaking, and he always seemed to have a revolving door of wingers to play with.

Igor's place in my heart is different from the rest of the players. He always seemed so sophisticated on the ice, to the point of appearing to be too nice. It always amazed me that he never won a Lady Byng, but he did play the bulk of his career at the same time as Gretzky. However, all that changed on March 26, 1997, when he and Peter Forsberg started to tangle during a game. Who would have known that this little encounter would spark Fight Night at the Joe, where McCarty got revenge for Draper and Vernon bloodied Roy? Besides the obvious, what it showed me is that Igor bought into the team completely; he was willing to go outside his comfort zone and mix it up with a bigger guy (Foppa was a tough player to handle, kind of like Mario). We are all well aware of the importance of that game to the team: it was used as a springboard to playoff success. Igor's experience and calmness were key attributes the rest of the team drew on during their long runs in '97 and '98. While he didn't put up huge numbers in the playoffs, he scored some timely goals and chipped in with big assists, all as the 3rd line center.

At the end of the 2000 season, he signed a deal with Florida to be reunited with Pavel Bure. However, it didn't take him long to realize that no one plays for the Panthers voluntarily (a trend that has continued to this day), and he was traded back to the Wings later that year for Yan Golubovsky. He picked up right where he left off, setting up teammates and playing smart hockey.

Igor was never a guy who wanted the spotlight, but in the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals, that's exactly where he found himself. To set it up, the series is tied 1-1 going back to Raleigh. The Wings had played good, but the Canes were trapping like crazy and getting timely goals from key players, not to mention the fact that Irbe was playing out of his mind. The Wings desperately had to have this game, because if the Canes win, they keep home ice and have a chance to put a stranglehold on the series. Side story time: Game 3 is on a Saturday night, and my folks (I lived at home at the time) have people over. They're all drinking and having a good time. Me? I brewed a pot of coffee. I come outside and everyone makes fun of me: "You're a young man, why are you drinking coffee? Shouldn't you have a beer or something?" My response? I looked at them all calmly and said "Game 3 is tonight. I have to be alert. This game is important. What if it goes into triple overtime or something like that? I don't want to fall asleep." Remember what happened? That's right. This happened:

First, you're absolutely right, dear reader: I am psychic. Unfortunately for me, those abilities have not led to fame and fortune (yet). But since this post is not about me, let's talk about Igor again. There was not another goal in his NHL career that was bigger than this one. He became the oldest player to score an OT winner, and that goal gave the Wings home-ice back, which they would not relinquish. As a conclusion to the story I told earlier, the company my folks had over had left long before the game was over: they were all too tired from partying in the sun all day (keep in mind, it was almost 2 am when the game ended). I was nice and awake after that, although it should be noted it was 2 days before I slept again. Totally worth it.

The Professor was an important, if understated, player on the Wings. He was instrumental in giving them the experience and depth that is necessary to be successful in the NHL, and was able to help the Wings win 3 Cups. Although he wasn't the most prolific scorer, given the many different wingers he had and the fact he didn't play on one of the top 2 scoring lines, he did pretty good for himself. That earns him the distinction of being the 14th Greatest Red Wing of My Time.


  1. Graham,

    Yesssss! The first of the Russian 5 appears! You hit the nail right on the head with how Igor's nickname undoubtedly complimented him. He indeed looked like a genius and his smart plays on the ice definitely reflected that.

    That OT goal was soo insane. The stick handling move he made around the diving d-man was incredible. You just knew he was going to finish that play with the puck in the net. I'm actually from NC, about 15 mins outside of Raleigh and I can remember seeing this on the news the next evening. I wasn't into hockey at the time, but that game was a dagger in the heart for Canes fans.

    You're really flying through these now! Pumped for the unlucky 13th player on your list! haha

    P.S. Igor's daughter, Alyonka is on Twitter. She's a hottie too!


  2. I was at the Gin Mill in Chicago for that game, formerly a Detroit bar in the windy city. I was there with some friends and my future wife who was meeting said friends for the first time. Nothing says love like her first hockey experience...standing in a crowded bar watching two full hockey games and not complaining once. Cheering with me the whole way. What a game.