Back in the USSR…a teacher

There is a tendency these days to criticize — or punish — a Russian just for being born in a country that’s now threatening world peace. All Russians, without exception, because their lineage is a four-letter word. Most of us have a problem with that.

I was reminded of this over coffee with a friend whose Dad was interned during World War II only because her father was Japanese. Another colleague of mine who grew up in the shadow of such discrimination is Rick Matsumoto, formerly a Toronto Star sports writer. Like me, he would have had occasion to meet Russians during his career. Like me, he would find today’s bias unacceptable.

Most (maybe all) of the Russians I’ve met were hockey players: Vladislav Tretiak, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov, Pavel Bure. While Bure became the biggest star, “my favourite Russian” will always be Larionov. At 29, he was 12 months into a 14-year National Hockey League career, still learning the ropes of life in North America, still learning the language, yet linguistically skilled enough to be expertly conversational.

The first interview was scheduled for about 30 minutes. An hour and a half later…and that’s part of the reason he’s my favourite Russian. A second interview, in the North Vancouver townhouse he shared with his wife Elena and two young daughters, was just as long — and just as interesting.

“I don’t know anything well except hockey, and hockey’s just our job, so I try to know everything that’s going on in the world,” he said. “I’d like to be involved in investments and budgets…maybe be an agent. I’d like to be involved in hockey.”

He played two more seasons with the Canucks, before Larionov found it unacceptable that the “Soviet” hockey federation was collecting part of his salary. Free agency gave him an escape. He played with four more teams but mostly Detroit, where he helped the Wings win three Stanley Cups on his way to the Hall of Fame.

Larionov learned about investments as co-owner of a winery; he became an agent; he stayed in hockey as coach of the Russian junior team. Called “The Professor” for his scholarly off-ice appearance, Larionov is a natural teacher. On two occasions, one just days before the USSR became Russia, I was briefly his student.

He showed me a taste of life in the USSR (one passport for travel, one passport for buying groceries). He explained the biggest shock for players who went to the NHL was too many games and too much spare time, compared to regimented 12-hour days of training with few games in the USSR. I learned that his parents, Nikolai and Maria, worked hard for a pension of 200 rubles a month, then discovered a kilogram of salami cost 160 rubles. And that after his rookie season when kids in his hometown were being infected with AIDS — during the height of that epidemic — he bought and shipped 10,000 syringes to Voskresensk.

“Hockey’s just our job,” he said, “so I try to know everything that’s going on in the world.”

Wouldn’t he make for interesting conversation today?