June 19, 2010

Hall of Fame Worthy? The Soviets

When Igor Larionov was inducted in 2008, I remember openly calling for his KLM linemates to one day be included too. Sergei Makarov and, yes I'm going to say it again, Vladimir Krutov

We never will know how great those Russian players could have been in the National Hockey League. By the time most of them were allowed to leave Mother Russia for America, the primes of their careers were well past them.

Larionov, like Viacheslav Fetisov before him, got into the Hockey Hall of Fame not because he was anywhere near as great in the NHL as he was internationally, but because he added to an incredible international resume and legacy with long tenures as a solid contributor to championship NHL teams.

Larionov joined Fetisov, Vladislav Tretiak and Valeri Kharlamov as the only European players inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame based on their merits outside of the NHL as opposed to inside. Builder Anatoli Tarasov is another.

But are there more deserving European candidates than Larionov?

Looking strictly at Russia, the Big Red Machine of the 1970s had several key cogs who should get serious consideration, namely Boris Mikhailov, Alexander Maltsev and Alexander Yakushev. Dating back even earlier Vsevolod Bobrov and Anatoli Firsov deserve mention as pioneers.

But we need not look any further than Larionov's own wingers to find two equally deserving Hall of Fame inductees, perhaps even more worthy - Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov.

Krutov, Larionov and Makarov made up the famed KLM Line, also known as the Green Unit because of their green practice jerseys. They were perhaps the greatest trio in the history of hockey.

Due to the Soviet system the center Larionov was always understated. But he was the perfect man for the job, willing to play positional, deep-defensive zone hockey and making perfect transition passes. He was the glue, both technically and psychologically, that kept the machine running.

Ready to take those brilliant passes were Krutov and Makarov, the wingers with the speed and offensive arsenal of fighter jets. They were explosively spectacular players, blessed with incredible skating and puck handling ability.

Makarov was a crazy legged skater, blessed with dazzling speed and agility. He was as dangerous of a one-on-one player as there ever has been, emulating the bold and sudden dashes of his idol Valeri Kharlamov. He had a laser of a shot and as much of a goal scorer's mentality as the Soviet system allowed. But he was every bit as lethal with his great passing game, be it short give-and-goes or impossible breakout passes.

Krutov was a cannonball of a forward, nicknamed Tank because of his stout nature and robust play. With a double chin at the age of the 19, he didn't look like a typical Soviet athlete. His crafty play was matched by a hard competitive edge, resembling the great Boris Mikhailov. With his speed and strength he was one Soviet forward who was very effective along the walls and in the corners. I can't decide which was more impressive - Krutov's astonishing rocket bursts from a stand still or his piercing wrist shot.

In head to head matches against Canada in tournaments like the Canada Cup, it was impossible not to be impressed by the offensive wizardry of Makarov and Krutov. Larionov was less noticeable, partly because of the Soviet system but more because he was being manhandled by Mark Messier. Canada tried to match up the KLM Line with speedsters, often Messier with Glenn Anderson and Mike Gartner. They were not necessarily the greatest defensive players but they, as the NHL's fastest skaters, were the only ones who had a chance keeping up with them.

Their respective tenures in the NHL, Krutov's in particular, are remembered as busts. Makarov put together a couple of nice seasons, but without Larionov's command of English and unquenchable taste for Western life, neither Krutov and Makarov, like so many other Russian stars of the 1980s, never really had much of a chance of excelling in North America at their advanced age.

Igor Larionov was the unselfish and brainy chessmaster of the KLM Line. With his help, both Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov harnessed their near-limitless raw talent and became the best players in the world.

I am absolutely convinced that both Krutov and Makarov are among the top 5 wingers of the 1980s. I would suggest only Mike Bossy and Jari Kurri would challenge either for top billing, with Michel Goulet maybe rounding out the top 5.

If the Hockey Hall of Fame wants to truly establish itself as Hockey's Hall of Fame, more Soviet players will be inducted. If they continue to do ignore them, fans throughout Europe will continue to dismiss the Hall as simply the NHL Hall of Fame.

By including Kharlamov, Tretiak, Tarasov and even to some degree Fetisov and Larionov, the Hall has shown interest in expanding its reach. The Hall needs to commit to the vision it started, and including Sergei Makarov is the next move in that mandate.

1 comment:

Bruno said...

Truly legends of hockey, but while gary bettman still taking over the nhl, the hockey will continue losing fans around the globe !

I'm from Brazil, I became fan watching games by the internet, and in the 90's decade, the hockey were brodcasted by ESPN to my country, today this sport is losing his roots, part of USA is tired of it, and canada teams is always weakers, so sad !