This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on June 3, 2002.
Larionov, Francis remarkable contrasts
By Ed Odeven
Two aging stars. Two inspirational leaders. Two players whose value to their teams extend far beyond the stat sheet.
Without a doubt, these are the common characteristics shared by Detroit’s Igor Larionov and Carolina’s Ron Francis, the oldest players on their respective teams that clash in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals tonight in Hockeytown, commonly known as Detroit.
As much as the deft-passing centers have in common on the ice, the personal backgrounds and experiences of Larionov and Francis are as different as “Sesame Street” and “Seinfeld.”
Larionov, 41, was born and raised in the now-dismantled U.S.S.R. during the days of the Cold War. He made his NHL debut with the San Jose Sharks at the age of 29, an age when many players are already contemplating a second career.
Francis, 39, grew up in another hotbed of hockey, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. He made his NHL debut as the ripe old age of 18 in 1981 with the Hartford Whalers. (Yes, those Whalers, who during the 1970s won the World Hockey Association’s equivalent of the Stanley Cup while playing in Boston and going by the name of New England Whalers. And now, Francis is back in his second tour of duty with the franchise, except now the Whalers, err, Hurricanes call North Carolina home.)
Larionov helped lead the Soviets to numerous World Hockey Championship gold medals and Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988. But his biggest battles were fought off the ice.
Before the collapse of Russia’s communist regime in the early 1990s, Larionov voiced his opinion, attacking the principle pillar of Russian society: our way is the only way.
“It is easy to fight on the ice,” ex-Red Wing Slava Fetisov told The Detroit News in 1996. “But not many people fight the Communist system.”
Fetisov along with Larionov paved the way for the future influx of Russians in the NHL.
“”He stood up for himself and other guys,” Fetisov said. “He never gave up. That means more than fighting on the ice, no?”
Pundits and scholars recognize Larionov’s influential place in the Soviet Union.
“Larionov is the most important athlete in the history of Soviet sport, leading the campaign for Soviet athletes to play abroad without defection,” Robert Edelman, the author of “Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the U.S.S.R.,” said in a 1995 interview.
Francis never battled an oppressive regime. Instead, he’s quietly made opposing players shake their heads and slam their sticks in frustration during 21 years of on-ice battles. A model of consistency and unselfish play, Francis has amassed 1,701 regular-season points during his career, which places him No. 5 on the league’s all-time scoring list.
That’s not all.
Francis is No. 2 on the league’s all-time assists list (1,187 helpers), trailing only the inimitable Wayne Gretzky (1,963). Midway through his career, Francis was a key player for the Pittsburgh Penguins who won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992.
Remarkably, even at this stage of their careers, Larionov and Francis are still dominant playmakers.
“He’s smart, but gritty. He plays different than anybody I’ve ever played with. He makes passes in different directions, not just straight ahead,” Detroit captain Steve Yzerman said during a recent discussion of Larionov.
Said Carolina’s Martin Gelinas: “Ron will say something when it needs to be said, but he has a very calming influence in the room. “He always goes about his business in a quiet manner, but it’s always effective.”
So, instead of just being marveled by the exploits of the game’s younger stars, give Larionov and Francis their due. For different reasons, these dynamic veterans have led amazing lives and continue to perform amazing feats on the ice.