Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Russian Veterans Departure.

Florida's Igor Larionov vs. Detroit's Sergei Fedorov

It was Hall of Fame weekend in Toronto and soon-to-be inducted Igor Larionov shared stories from his playing days with the crowd around him. Inevitably the discussion turned to his time in Detroit, where he won three Stanley Cups under Scotty Bowman. In 1997, Larionov and the famed Russian Five helped bring the first Stanley Cup to Detroit since 1955.

It also was Bowman and the Russian Five who implemented the puck-possession style of hockey the Red Wings continue to win with today.

"If you want to control the game, you have to control the puck," Larionov said last November before his induction. "Why should you give the puck away and go and chase? …That game was accepted in Detroit, even now the team is playing so well. I was part of that transition."

When Larionov retired in 2004 after one final season in New Jersey, he was 43 years old. But in those last years, he made a huge impact on an Original Six franchise. And all of hockey.

Now, with Russian players opting to spend their final seasons playing for the KHL, the NHL is being robbed of impact Russian veterans—the Larionovs of this generation.

On Tuesday, news broke that Sergei Fedorov was close to signing with the Russian KHL. His teammate in Washington, Viktor Kozlov, signed a two-year deal with the Russian league, according to an RDS report. Don't be surprised if Chicago goalie Nikolai Khabibulin is pursued heavily by the KHL after the playoffs.

In an e-mail to Sporting News Today, agent Pat Brisson said Fedorov does not have a done deal.

"Sergei will be exploring his options on the trip to Russia next week," Brisson wrote. "In the meantime, I will continue to speak with the Capitals."

Fedorov, 39, was a calming influence on the Capitals this season where he was a mentor to young Russians like Alexander Semin and Alex Ovechkin. Watching Fedorov beat Henrik Lundqvist in the third period of a first-round Game 7 also showed he still has an elite scorer's touch. The Capitals made serious strides this season, and Fedorov was a big part of that.

Detroit goalie Chris Osgood won two Stanley Cups with Fedorov and finds the trend of veteran Russians leaving the NHL early disturbing.

"To lose those guys is huge. We have to figure out a way to keep guys like Sergei and (Jaromir) Jagr and those great older veteran players," Osgood said. "I think it's important to have older guys like that, that younger European players can look up to when they get over here and understand how to handle themselves on and off the ice. That's what guys like Igor Larionov did for him."

But if this is it for Fedorov in the NHL, it's also time for the fans in Detroit to embrace his role in the Red Wings' success—past and present. The same fans who booed Fedorov during every return to Joe Louis Arena after he left for Anaheim in 2003 will be the first to cheer tonight if the Red Wings—and their Russian inspired puck-possession offense—put away the Blackhawks and advance to another Stanley Cup final.

Reacting to news of Fedorov's possible departure to the KHL, fans on Detroit sports talk radio discussed the worthiness of retiring Fedorov's No. 91. It shouldn't even be a debate.

Outside the Red Wings' locker room, the all-time award winners are painted on a cinder block wall. Fedorov's name is everywhere - there's a Hart Trophy, a Lester B. Pearson Trophy, a pair of Selkes. There's also three Stanley Cups.

He loved his time in Detroit. Kirk Maltby said Fedorov still spends a lot of the summer in Michigan. Fedorov recently said he looks back at his time in Detroit and playing for Scotty Bowman fondly. He enjoyed both.

"Yeah, I certainly did," Fedorov said.

And playing for Bowman?

"If you played on the top six forwards, you play all the time," Fedorov said. "I personally like that idea very much."

He's not a top six forward anymore. He may not even be an NHL player anymore if the Russian reports are true. But with the Red Wings on the verge of another Stanley Cup final, his influence is still felt in Detroit.

"The Russian Five really changed the whole game in Detroit and then through the league," Chris Chelios told SN Today. "Everybody loves and respects what (Fedorov) did for the organization."

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