Everyone involved in hockey, or was a fan of the game, or even a casual observer knows the name, Igor Larionov. There’s no point in going over his accomplishments as a player, or an agent, all that matters right now is Larionov, the head coach, and can he guide his team to their first World Junior Championship gold medal since 2011.
“This tournament is the best against the best. This is when you can bring your game to the next level. Especially in Canada. They’re so passionate about the game,” said Larionov. “In December, at Christmas time, that’s the tournament everybody is looking forward to. It will bring a lot of excitement and hopefully some new names and give us some direction in terms of hockey development.”
The excitement in camp has been palpable.
“We are trying to slow everything down with the young guys and be patient. It’s an unusual year with the camp and COVID-19, and all of the details and preparation for the tournament,” Larionov said. “We don’t know what to expect, and we will face new challenges and a new environment, and everything will be decided on the ice. That’s what we’re telling the players and just keep working hard and focus on the game and don’t focus on anything else.”
Having returning players is a key, and Russia’s most important player could be netminder, Yaroslav Askarov, who was there last season. They didn’t win gold, and the young Russian was pulled against Sweden and didn’t play in the final. He has something to prove. You can expect him to turn the page and Larionov isn’t even talking about last year.
“You know what, it’s basically a fresh start because I’m the head coach,” he stated. “It’s nice to have someone who went through that experience in the past Askarov (Predators), and Podkolzin (Canucks) they’ve been around the last couple of years. The rest of the guys are good players, but they’re brand new.
“We are fortunate the KHL is playing hockey, so some boys are getting some minutes playing for KHL teams. Once again, when you get to Edmonton, everybody is on the same page, no matter what happened yesterday so you have to be your best today and tomorrow.”
There’s no doubt they will have some players coming in hot. Toronto Maple Leafs prospect, Rodion Amirov is one of them, and he could be one of the best two-way forwards in the tournament.
“At some point, you have to make a statement about people judging you the past couple of years. That’s the big stage of World Juniors. There are high expectations,” Larionov said with clarity. “The players are still young, 18 or 19, there will be a lot of social media, they won’t be around at the rink, but still, in this generation of social media and the internet, the boys will be spending some time reading some stuff.
“Amirov had a great tournament in November in Finland (Karjala Cup). He played really well, and he’s played good hockey for his hometown team in Ufa. It’s all about being the best at peak time. When the time comes at the end of December, and the beginning of January, that’s when we expect our players to play their best hockey.”
Marat Khusnutdinov (Wild) was a revelation at the Karjala Cup. He showed an extra gear and could score around the crease. He’s good on draws but doesn’t give up on a loss to get it right back. And at 5-9, the same as Larionov, same position, I wonder if he doesn’t see some of himself in the youngster.
“it’s all about little details. The game of hockey isn’t just about scoring goals and getting assists. Face-offs are a very important part of the game, ”Larionov noted. “He was very, very good in that department. Still, it’s about being the best. I told the players we had a good November, but that’s history. We have set the bar quite high to hit that level. Don’t go below, but you can go higher. I like what I saw because I saw him play a couple of times before, at the U18s, a month before the tournament, I was able to see him quite closely, and he played a lot of minutes on the power play, even strength, and the PK, and crucial face-offs. Hopefully, he can continue that at the same kind of level. He can give us confidence as maybe the first, second, or third center on my team.”
That’s a big statement. But he knows what he saw. He also knows that you can’t take any country for granted thinking they’re going to be an easy opponent.
“There’s good hockey developing around the world in a fast way. I’m trying to apply the tradition of Russian hockey, that mentality. The mental attitude, so we have to play the right way, play hard, compete, every game, and not worry about the results. Sometimes players can be tight because of the pressure and don’t play their best hockey in these situations. I’m trying to calm everybody down and let them just enjoy the game and the results will take care of themselves.”
His goal for the team is pretty straight forward.
“Our goal is to play an offensive style of hockey,” Larionov said just before the end of the interview. “Trust each other and discipline plays a big role.
He was known as “The Professor”, and he’s trying to teach these players about more than just hockey.
“It’s a special feeling. When you can share that kind of knowledge, as my life as a player and I will try and help in any department. Guide them in the right direction in their young life. To have a future playing in the NHL or KHL, but in my case, I try and treat everybody the same way and give them a fair chance to showcase themselves and be a team player. You can have some unusual skills but be in sync with the team. I want to teach them to be great hockey players and good people.”
Let’s see what happens out on the ice.
photo courtesy of photo.khl.ru