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Ice-hockey legend Igor Larionov: Winter Olympics are all about hockey

Winter Olympics are in full swing in Russia’s Sochi, with millions following the drama on the tracks and ice rinks; the star turn, as it’s been for years, is the hockey – with best players from across the planet meeting to find who deserves the gold. To talk about the hockey games, Sophie is joined today by the very special guest – the Soviet legend of the game, one of the greatest hockey players in history: Igor Larionov is on SophieCo.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Igor Larionov, legendary hockey player, it’s really great to have you on our program today. So which team you will be supporting?

Igor Larionov: Well, I got my Russian passport and obviously I’m rooting for team Russia in any discipline in Olympics, including hockey.

SS:Is it always that way, even when you were playing in America, were you always rooting for the Russian team?

IL: I belong to the Russian Soviet hockey system and obviously I played in three different Olympics in 1984, 1988 and 2002, and my heart and my roots are back home, here in Russia, especially… these two weeks in Sochi – it’s very important to the Russian athletes and hockey players and everybody else to do their best and bring a little piece of glory to the Russian people.

SS:Alright, but this is your heart talking - what about head and your hockey intuition?

IL: You know what, that’s a good question. But at the same time when you are watching, like a high-end hockey, it’s the best hockey you can imagine, to see in these 10 days of Olympics, because it’s best against the best.

And I can answer your question – it’s obviously a little bit more than just like I’m rooting for somebody – I’m just trying to see any new tendencies of the hockey game, how the game is evolving and developing. So to me it’s nice to see maybe some remarkable skill from players which they can show when in the game, on the line, the game Russia-US, when it’s a nail-biting game, like 2-2 and overtime, and the shootout – it was like classic hockey game.

SS:How fair is it to lose in the shootout – some thinking it’s probably like a lottery, it doesn’t really define which team is better if you win in the shootout…

IL: I’m not a big fan of a shootout system, which was implemented a few years ago, but that’s the rules, international rules, and NHL rules during the season; but, in the play-offs, usually they add overtime in North America. In Europe or international scene this is kind of different. So because of that I don’t think it’s fair because you want to go out and win the game in five-on-five or four against four in overtime, but not in shootout. But it brings some excitement to the game and fans were cheering and there was actually very nice atmosphere in the building.

SS:If you look at the America’s team, and they are like super young, they have no Olympic experience – is that even a factor? Is that better?

IL: No, they have some experience, they have a few guys coming back from the Vancouver games and their team is very strong. I know really well the GM of team USA, Brian Burke and Fred Shero, by my NHL days and even now my agency work, so these people, they know the game well; and, obviously, the coach – Stanley Cup champion coach Dan Bylsma, he knows the game well too, so it’s a young team, but it’s well-assembled and there is really good chemistry between these young players and they can go far in these Olympics.

SS:Most of these players are now playing in the NHL. Is this more important to play there and make money then actually prepare for the Olympics and forge a team chemistry together? Because it takes time…

IL: No, no, no. It’s been since 1998 first time NHL took a break in the season when they’ve sent all the NHL guys to play in Japan in the Nagano Olympics and today…

I mean, the hockey is the main event – I don’t care what anybody says about figure skating and all in that respect, and other sports, but hockey – because you got so many superstars coming to play and they play against each other, so it’s not every time you can see top teams from around the world playing. It’s like a World Cup of soccer. But this is NHL players coming and playing especially at Olympics, and for the players to come and play and to be proud for their country, so I think it’s kind of historic event for the players because of that.

It’s once in 4 years, and you have a chance to represent your country and you have a chance to go for the gold, or you can lose, for example, and you’ve got to wait next four years and there’s no guarantee you would be playing again for team Russia, for team USA or team Canada. In the NHL you sign a long-term contract, six, seven, eight years – so you are secured. You can go for Stanley Cup every season: you lost this year so you can take a break for 4 months, and go back in September and have your goal set to go again for the Stanley Cup, so it’s kind of different scale.

SS:So you’re saying in a way, Olympics are even more important than Stanley Cup.

IL: Well, it’s for the country, and obviously, to have in your resume – let’s put it that way – to play for your country and to bring the gold, because “Olympic champion” – it’s going to be with you for the rest of your life. Stanley Cup champion also, but it’s only played in North America, and Olympics is a global event.

SS:I want to talk to you a little bit about the stars, because Russia was so eager to have all their NHL players play in this Olympics. Is it important? Do you think it’s more important to have star players come together than actually a trained team?

IL: When you play against the best teams from Canada, from US and from Sweden, from Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland – most of the guys these play hockey in the best league in the world, National Hockey League in North America, and for the Russian players… you have to be aware and you have to be candid and honest and to see whom you are playing against and to me there is no doubt in my mind, National Hockey League is very-very tough League and to play in that League players are getting stronger and better because of the competition and you’ve got to prove yourself every single night when you step on ice and for many years. If you want to stay longer, you play for 10, 15, 20 years – it’s a big commitment and that’s why you’re getting better and that’s why you are being recognized as a great in player in the world, like Alex Ovechkin or Malkin, or Kovalchuk, or Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby and on and on.

SS:I was just also thinking – when you’re such a star in your NHL team, you probably have some sort of an ego, and then you have all different NHL stars put in a team together – does that get in the way, the personalities of each other?

IL: That’s the big issue for every team, because, I can tell you why, when the GM putting team together, let’s say, like, team Canada – Steve Yzerman, he got five other assistant GMs, the people who work for the NHL clubs as a general managers, so they go through the list of 85 or hundred players and they are usually picking the best of the best, and a special role, for example top-line has got to be goal-scorers and play checkers and this and that, so it’s…you are building the team, and obviously, when you are picking the team from the thirty NHL teams and when you are picking 20 guys out of 650 players to play for Canada, to play for the US, to play for Russia – every player got the ego, because you play for Capitals, Washington Capitals, or play for Chickago Hawks – you are top player there and you spend maybe 20-25 minutes on ice every night, and then you go play for team Canada or team Russia, so you got like 20 guys, all the best, and you have to put your ego away or aside and do whatever needed for the country, for the team, and it’s only two weeks, short period of time when you have forget about how much ice-time you are having, how many goals you score, but at the end of the day you’ve got to see that nice color of gold on your neck. When you become the champions, who cares how minutes you played, how many goals you scored, but at the time you sacrifice your ego and do your best for your country, for the club and nice to have a smile and to be Olympic champion – and that’s what it’s all about.

SS:Would you say that Russia’s team has a great team spirit as of now?

IL: I didn’t see the first game of the tournament against Slovenia, but in any game you play in this kind of event and it’s not easy because of that – you start getting used to a new environment, obviously, and the friends, and you play at home, and a lot of – I’m sure – distractions because of that, families and the friends, and nowadays it’s twitter and instagram and a lot of different stuff… When I played, we had nothing. Today it’s a different environment, and for the Russian players, when you come to play at home – you have to realize that, there’s a lot of little things you’ve been thinking about, or they’ve bothered you, so you got to put them aside and just go and be honest to yourself and be honest with the people, who are in your country, watching you, and are actually expecting you to win.

SS:You were one of the five legendary hockey player stars in the USSR – you were like superheroes back then. Did your personalities get in a way of each other?

IL: We’re talking about the Soviet days, eighties, and we didn’t play for North American teams, we didn’t play for big money. I grew up in a system in which the teamwork was actually the main thing. Even today it’s the same thing, but nowadays, when the players are playing, they are young so they go in for the personal benefits, which is, you know, if you score money-goals, you making many passes and you’re going to get some bonuses, you’re going to get your contract. So, basically it’s playing for yourself, but a little bit for the team too. That’s what is the difference between today’s generation and our generation. We grew up in the soviet system, we didn’t care who scores, we did care about how the team did, and we played for each other, so that’s what is the biggest difference. Of course, we had skill, we had great amount of individual creative skills, let’s put it that way, and the imagination and the improvisation and hockey-sense, in terms of playing the game, nobody could play like our five-man unit. Today the game has changed, and it’s a little bit different…

SS:Has the money changed the game?

IL: Money changed the game too, but the money always was in North America and NHL, so for the Russian players when we played for the Soviet Union, we were making like 350 rubles a month…

SS:Which was actually good money back in the Soviet Union.

IL: Good money, but you’re playing against the NHL guys, and Canada Cup, playing Super series, during Christmas break, Christmas time, so you playing against the guys who are making five hundred thousand dollars, you know, and you’ve been actually successful against them, because you’re making like 300 roubles, and you’re playing against half a million or million dollar contracts, and maybe 70% of our games were successful for us. Then, you go to North America, and then you get agent, you get the advisors and they tell you “hey, you want to get nice car, you want to get nice house – you’ve got to play well”

SS:Be the best.

IL: Statistics. The key word: statistics. So that’s what you start to understand, you worry about yourself, you worry about how many goals, how many points I have, then my agent can go to GM and say “look at these numbers, that player is making two million and got 50 points, and I’m making, like 750,000 dollars, and I got 75 points, so I want to have 10 million dollar contract”. It goes in the players minds, but when you go to play for the country, it’s different, because this is only like a ten-day tournament, statistics doesn’t matter, end result – it’s important.

SS:You’ve had both of the two worlds. Hand on your heart, what was emotionally more fulfilling and thrilling to you?

IL: Can’t separate. I can tell you, I would have been more than happy to come to America when I was 18, make a lot of money, instead of coming at the age of 29, when basically most of the players were retiring from the game. But at the same time, when you’re playing for the team and for the country and the unit, like I played in this KLM line, in the Green unit…the way we played, it’s hard to describe, because it was the game ahead of its time, we played the game based on skill, improvisation and tremendous understanding and hockey-sense, so… But, we didn’t make much money, I kind of regret about that, but at the same time we’ve been successful, winning everything and being called “Red Machine” around the world. I was lucky enough to play half of my career in the Soviet Union, and more than half in North America, but making more money.

SS:Do you think you would have been as successful without each other in the Soviet team when the five of you were just unbeatable – or it’s the five of you that made the team work, it had to have an ingredient of five of you?

IL: That’s the tough question to answer, because when you grew up in a system like Soviet Union and you got the Red Army team, which had a privilege in the rights to pick any player, on Soviet territory, bring them to the club and train these players for 11 months a year, year after year, obviously you have a chance to be successful and it’s best players you can imagine going to one team and train every single day two or three times a day for 10-12 years in a row; or you could be individual, like, for example, Malkin, Ovechkin, Datsyuk – they came without playing in the same line for 5-7 years, going to America when they are 18, 19, 20, so they got skill and they got time to get used to North American style and they got patience from their management to let them develop, to let them play the games, learn the game and study the game and be the best, so that’s a little different.

SS:Why do you think Pavel Datsyuk was chosen to be captain of the team?

IL: Well, you know what, he has been most consistent player, and for the last ten years, among the Russian players - number one, number two, he is the oldest guy in the team right now, he is 35, number three – he has been recognized as of the best players of the game today. So, obviously, to have a guy who won two Stanley Cups, who won the World Championships and been playing for the top team in NHL, Detroit Red Wings, there is no other choices.

SS:There’s always a debate going on whose role is more important – the coaches or the captains in the hockey team. What do you think?

IL: I can tell you, in the Vancouver games, team Canada, if I’m not mistaken, they had 14 captains, from different NHL teams.

SS:So it is the coach?

IL: Coach runs the bench, coach makes their line combinations, seeing the game, matching the lines; it’s kind of the hockey terminology, matching the lines and who played against who. But the players you have, so they all are 14 captains, they all leaders in the team, so they know what it takes to sacrifice, to go to the next level, to support your line-mate and teammate, and block the shot and make second effort to help the goalie, to make a save. That’s the combination of the coaches and the players, and more captains you have, more success you going to have too, because those people, they know how to make the team play well and bring the team together when it struggles – that’s the privilege to have so many captains in one team.

SS:Tell me about the coaches. You had one of the most legendary coaches in the Soviet Union, but also you were almost scared of him, he was known to be a ruthless man – is fear also a factor in success?

IL: We are talking about the past, or we are talking about today’s game?

SS:No,no, when you were playing in the Soviet team with Tikhonov.

IL: When you are playing in the Red Army team, you’ve got no choices – basically you are in the army and you have to obey your general or colonel, and you are as a soldier, so you have no rights, like, to say anything, so you just go out and play.

SS:Is that what it was like – being an army?

IL: Well, you play for the Red Army team, that’s your goal, if we’re talking about the head coach. Head coach, Viktor Tikhonov, he was head coach for the Red Army team and also for the National team, so basically you had the same guy all season along, for 11 months and next season again, and season after again.

SS:Were you scared of him?

IL: It was not “scary”. At some point you start to rebel against your coach, against his dictatorship, because hockey, it’s a great game but it’s not all life you want to have – it’s your job, you go there like to work and enjoy the game and do your best and after you’ve got to have some personal life too, but we didn’t have that.

SS:In today’s world, under these conditions, where money is a very big factor and also you’ve got so many great teams playing great hockey, what is the coach’s main task? How to discipline a team?

IL: You have to understand that the game today is a little bit different, in a different state than it was 20 years ago. You can see countries like Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Latvia, they all have good teams, Germany – everybody plays hockey now, so it’s not easy to go against Slovenia, like the other day, when Russian team played against Slovenia and they were having difficult time – that’s because everybody can play now.

SS:Also back in the Soviet times, I feel like if you’d lost the game, it was equal to a crime – you were probably afraid to come back to the country or something…

IL: You know what, I don’t think we should talk about that. Obviously, you become disappointed about that, and when you are going to Lake Placid, like, 24 years ago, they still are talking about that in America, about “Miracle on Ice” when team USA, assembled from players from colleges from the U.S., beat one of the best teams in the history of the Soviet Union – that was disaster, that was a big shock, but that’s hockey, that’s the life, that’s one game, makes a huge difference, that’s what Olympics is all about, so now we’re moving to stage of the Olympics when it’s going to be quarter-finals and you are going to see tension up in the air when the players start to play, because every mistake, every little detail, every little remark – everything that happens on ice is going to lead you or bring you down and you’re going to lose the chance to move on, to the next, and to the finals, and to the gold medal. So that’s what today is – a psychological game now.

SS:But for our guys, for Russians who are competing on their home ground, do you think it’s more pressure or, on the contrary, they feel more at ease?

IL: It’s a pressure, you know, it’s a pressure because we are still talking about the best, you and me are talking now about the great glory of the Soviet days, and everybody, every fan, every media outlet are trying to tell the Russian players – “this is your chance, you play at home, you have the best players and there’s a whole country behind you, it is very-very expensive games, so you have to go out and do your best” – and that’s what, unfortunately, everybody saying in the media, because Olympics is not just hockey, there’s a lot of different disciplines but if the hockey is successful, you forget about every loss, like biathlon, or speed-skating, or luge, or short trek, whatever, like sports in the Olympics, but hockey should be the champions – if we win the gold medals as a hockey team in the Olympics, and we have no medals in other sports, we’ve been successful because we showed everybody in the world who are the best – that’s still there.

SS:Igor Larionov, thank you so much for this interesting insight and your time.