| The Professor left his
Bay Area's hockey history etched by
11/10/08 - By Mike Lee
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.
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
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.
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
The team was forced to grow up faster than it probably
should have, which in turn created bigger problems down the road.
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
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
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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