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Igor Larionov says the ‘Russian problem’ does exist…to some extent

The Detroit Red Wings never had a “Russian problem” when Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov were helping the team win Stanley Cups in the 90’s, or when Pavel Datsyuk joined the fray in the early 2000’s, and in light of the shenanigans involving Predators forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, Larionov, who now represents some of the NHL’s best Russian prospects—prospects that Larionov very consciously prefers to place with North American Major Junior hockey franchises for their formative years’ worth of hockey—spoke to the Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek about the lingering cultural divide, offering a blunt assessment of the reasons why the Alex Galchenyuks and Nail Yakupovs of the world still battle the same biases and predispositions that Larionov had to tangle with some 20 years ago:

“Obviously, I’m concerned about that,” Larionov said. “To me, sometimes, before you judge a person, you have to do your homework, see the guy and talk to the kid and talk to the parents and follow him for quite a while to form an impression and make a decision. To me, it’s a lack of communication, and stereotyping. It’s like a bad stereotype of the Russians – doesn’t care about the Stanley Cup, doesn’t respect the fans, doesn’t respect the teammates, doesn’t respect the club. You can’t judge one or two Russian players and talk about everybody. Canadians, Americans, Swedes, Czechs, you can always find a bad apple in the bunch.”

One of the primary reasons for the NHL’s alienation of affection with Russian players was the emergence of the KHL in the fall of 2006. The KHL essentially replaced Russia’s Superleague and began to compete for homegrown players under the watch of Alexander Medvedev, a powerful oligarch who facilitated Radulov’s departure from the NHL in July of 2008 and also coaxed Czech star Jaromir Jagr to play in Russia for three seasons before he returned to join the Philadelphia Flyers this season.

“Obviously, the KHL has a big impact now,” Larionov said. “If you read the press in Russia, they want everybody to stay home. They say, ‘if you go to the NHL, it’s a hard way to make money. It’s hard to make the team. You have to learn the language.’ In Russia, everything is given to you the first day, and I disagree with that. The way it has been in North America, I think it’s the right way. It’s easy to spoil the players and kill the desire to get to the next level. It is hard to be one of 700 players to play in the National Hockey League and to compete every night and compete in every game. To me, it’s a dilemma for the Russian guys. Are they willing to make a sacrifice and go to North America? And so, for the NHL, they kind of worry, should we take this Russian kid?”

Larionov, who was one a consultant to the KHL and SKA St. Petersburg, and turned down Russia’s 2010 Olympic team’s general manager’s job because he could not be promised that politicking would remain absent from his player personnel decisions, doesn’t buy the concept that the KHL is somehow on equal or superior footing with its self-made archrival, especially in terms of giving players a leg up on making Russia’s 2014 Olympic team (which more or less has to win what Vladimir Putin and the Russian government are billing as would-be Cyrillic-letter-perfect Olympic games):

Larionov disputes this theory: “If the league is so good, the KHL, why do they wait for Malkin and Datsyuk, why do they leave some space for [Ilya] Kovalchuk and Ovechkin and [Alexander] Semin and some other guys playing now in the second round of the playoffs? So to me, that’s not the right explanation, that the chances will be better for you if you play hockey in Russia.

“With all respect to the KHL,” Larionov added, “the players in the NHL have got more of an everyday reality check. The competition is so high, so you have to compete every night. You are always in the public eye with the way you play. Like [Wednesday], they were showing Ovechkin all night long. They show everything – how you compete, how you’re doing – and that’s what makes the players realize, there is no easy way to make money. You have to compete every single day and when a new day starts, you have to prove again that you deserve to be here. That’s the highest level of competition. That’s why these [NHL] players are better. That’s why they’re maturing very quickly, because of that level of competition. That’s why Malkin and Datsyuk play here, and why they play key roles, and why they’re top players in the league.”

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Crow's avatar

That’s why Malkin and Datsyuk play here, and why they play key roles, and why they’re top players in the league

Amen Professor!

Posted by Crow on 05/05/12 at 12:32 AM ET

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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.