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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Larionov Breaks the Hockey Mold

VOSKRESENSK, Central Russia -- When Russian players from North America's National Hockey League come home during the off-season, most spend the time opening supermarkets and dodging autograph-hunters.

Igor Larionov, arguably the most celebrated Russian hockey player still on the ice, was to be found this summer at his parents home in the Moscow region town of Voskresensk working on his vegetable garden and savoring fine wines.

Larionov, 37, won numerous world and Olympic titles for the Soviet Union in the 1980s, as well as two Stanley Cups with the NHL's Detroit Red Wings in the last two seasons. Since Vyacheslav Fetisov, his fellow defenseman at the Detroit club, announced his retirement from hockey, Larionov has become Russia's best-known hockey player.

But more than his achievements on the ice, it is Larionov's personality and thoughtful lifestyle that set him apart from most professional hockey players.

To start with, Larionov does not fit the stereotype of the hockey player - an athlete with huge thighs and broad shoulders but with a range of conversation topics that does not extend to anything outside sport.

With regular clothes on, the veteran center, wearing small designer glasses, has the look of a college professor and is known among his peers both in Russia and North America for his intellectual ways as well as his somewhat unorthodox views.

The player, nicknamed the "Russian Wayne Gretzky" by the North American media for his slick moves and precise passing, likes to grow pickles and tomatoes in the backyard of his Detroit home.

"I got this habit from my parents," said Larionov, proudly displaying the vegetable crop. "This year I've grown particularly good cherry tomatoes and I hope, come fall, the apples and pears will be just as good."

Larionov has another unorthodox pastime: He is an enthusiastic collector of fine wines.

The love affair between Larionov and wine started five years ago when he was playing in Lugano, Switzerland.

"During the 1992-93 season I was playing for a local Swiss club, and in that part of the country, which is mostly Italian, wine is the main attribute of people's traditional lifestyle and their culture," he said. "So I had this friend, a big hockey fan, who used to come to every one of our home games and bring two or three bottles of gorgeous red wine. That is how I got hooked on wine."

Larionov's "addiction" followed him to San Jose, California, where he moved the following year to join the NHL's Sharks. "California is known for its wine, so it was natural for me to continue my new found hobby of wine collecting," he said.

Although Larionov describes himself as a "beginner not a professional" when it comes to collecting wine, he began to find out about the financial side of his hobby with the thoroughness and consistency that is his trademark in hockey and in life.

"I started subscribing to the magazine Wine Spectators and began reading other publications on this subject," he said. "I try to make a long-term investment by buying fine wine and not just to make a quick buck."

Larionov said that at first, most of his fellow Russian hockey players looked on his new hobby with puzzlement.

"In Russia, you know, we have a different drinking tradition," he said smiling. "You get a big glass of vodka after which a conversation begins. Only after living a few years in the West, I learned what a dumb thing that is."

According to the Russian veteran, there was also "quite a prejudice" toward wine among his North American teammates.

"Beer was by far the preferred choice of beverage among the great majority of NHL players," he said. "But now, at least among the Red Wings, it's about to change."

Larionov said that the change in tastes became evident during the team's annual rookie dinner last season, when in accordance with tradition, the new players pick up the tab for their teammates' food and drink.

"In the past, the veterans liked to run up a bill on the rookies by ordering expensive cognac, but last time most of them went for fine wine instead," he said.