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The Professor left his mark
Bay Area's hockey history etched by Larionov
11/10/08 - By Mike Lee

It's hard to believe that it's been 16 years since the Sharks plucked a gangly centerman name Igor Larionov off the NHL waiver draft. The Russian forward was a legend in international hockey circles, yet here he was, available to a struggling expansion team for the taking. Larionov would go on to win three Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, but his mark on hockey in the Bay Area forced the Sharks to rethink how they approached the game.

The Professor, as he was known, played for one of the most dominating line in international hockey history, flanked by linemates Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov. The Red Army's KLM Line dominated the hockey world, but the demise of the Soviet Union led to the capitalistic shipment of Larionov and Makarov to the NHL, in exchange for a portion of their salaries in 1989.

Larionov's stint with the Vancouver Canucks was truncated by Larionov's disdain for the financial arrangement that his mother country had brokered in exchange for his services. He would eventually move to Switzerland to play in protest of his Canucks contract.

The Sharks would acquire Larionov after the Canucks had essentially given up on him. San Jose would also acquire Makarov to reunite two-thirds of the KLM line. Some hockey insiders saw this as a gimmicky attempt to resurrect some of Mother Russia's former glory in the form of an NHL line.

The funny part is, it worked.

The two Russians, paired with Swede Johan Garpenlov, were reinvigorated in San Jose. They helped San Jose to a 58 point improvement in one season. That mark still stands as the greatest turnaround in an 82-game season in NHL history.

More importantly, it gave Sharks fans a taste of playoff hockey. It gave fans a taste of success. The Bay Area hockey aficionado would no longer settle for mediocre hockey.

The team was forced to grow up faster than it probably should have, which in turn created bigger problems down the road.

The Sharks felt compelled to make moves that were targeted at greater short term reward. The future was sacrificed to some degree for greater near term satisfaction. It ironically played a direct part in Larionov's departure from San Jose.

In dire need for scoring help, San Jose dealt Larionov to Detroit for Ray Sheppard. Larionov's vocal position on the direction that franchise was headed (which included Makarov being waived right before the start of the '95 season) also helped expedite his departure. Four games into the '95 campaign, he was gone. That turned out to be one of many personnel mistakes the Sharks would make during the mid-90's, but it may have sealed Larionov's fate in terms of his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

That induction was held on Monday night in Toronto, ringing with his successes as a Red Wing and Red Army hero.

One of the first interviews Larionov did as a Sharks came during a charity softball game at the San Jose PAL fields off highways 101 & 280 in San Jose. Here was this little guy with glasses that doubled as a Russian hockey legend? Larionov managed to get a hit during the game, but he didn't know where to run once he hit the ball. For the Bay Area hockey novice, it had to be a head scratching move, leaving them wondering what the Sharks saw in acquiring the guy that looked more like a professor of literature than a proessional hockey player.

When Larionov hit the ice, it was a different story.

Makarov was the showman, dazzling the crowd with his stick handling and overall puck wizardry, but Larionov was the pure athlete. His conditioning regimen was legendary, which is one of the reasons he played in 921 NHL games (he didn't join the NHL until he was 29, and took a year off to play in Switzerland in between).

If not for a set of bum knees, Makarov might have entered the hall along side his line mate. On Monday night the Professor had to settle for Glenn Anderson, Ray Scapinello and the late Ed Chynoweth as his induction partners.

A worthy class nonetheless. A class that involved a former Shark, and Bay Area hockey legend.


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