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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hockey Veteran Scores From Rink to Vineyard

For MTLarionov shoveling grapes in Australia in May. He was the NHL's oldest active player, at 44, when he retired in 2004.
The Swiss are known for fine clocks, secure banking and pretty mountain lakes. Based on Igor Larionov's experience, they should also be known for the good taste of their sports fans.

Hockey legend Larionov spent the 1992-93 season with the Swiss team HC Lugano. Now that he has hung up his skates and become a full-time wine entrepreneur, he traces the roots of his unlikely career move to the way Swiss fans showed their appreciation.

"Coming out of the locker room, I was greeted by fans and given one, two, three, four bottles of wine," Larionov said.

The fans had plenty to appreciate. Over the course of a hockey career that spanned four decades, Larionov earned a reputation as one of the smartest players in the game, displaying a strategic sense that sent sports writers scrambling for chess metaphors. His Soviet-era career brought him two Olympic gold medals and four World Championships, and his NHL tenure included three Stanley Cup victories with the Detroit Red Wings. Former Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman said Larionov had "a sixth sense" on the ice, comparing him -- as many have -- to Wayne Gretzky.

Larionov read obsessively about wine and began consulting with experts. Mike Davis, a Michigan-based wine distributor who is now Larionov's main business partner, remembers the early years of their friendship, when Larionov was playing with the Red Wings.

"Almost half the road trips [the team] took, I'd get a call from him from a restaurant asking about wines," Davis said. "He learned very quickly."

Larionov always had. By the age of 17, he was centering the line of the local hockey team in his hometown of Voskresensk, in the Moscow region. Four years later, in 1981, he was recruited to play for the elite CSKA team, where coach Viktor Tikhonov pulled strings to keep him out of active military service and on the ice instead.

Larionov spoke out on behalf of teammate Vyacheslav Fetisov -- presently the head of the Federal Agency for Physical Culture and Sports -- when Fetisov was promised, then denied at the last minute, a chance to play for the New Jersey Devils in 1988. Larionov wrote an open letter to the magazine Ogonyok condemning the "Stalinist tactics" that kept Soviet athletes in line.

"For me, it was not just about '88," Larionov said. A central fact of Larionov's family history was the 14 years his grandfather had spent in the gulag in the Stalin era. "I didn't want to be quiet anymore," he said. "I wanted to speak out while I was still an active player."

He would remain active for a long time to come. In 1989, the Sports Ministry first allowed Soviet hockey players to take jobs abroad, and Larionov headed to Vancouver, Canada, to begin an NHL career. He was the league's oldest active player when he retired last year at 44.

His adventures in the wine trade began at Davis' suggestion. "I have a lot of contacts in California, Australia and France," Davis said. "I said to Igor, 'Let's think about doing a private label with your name or a hockey theme.' He thought it was a great idea."

Their first wines were produced by two highly regarded winemakers Davis knew personally: Australia's Kevin Mitchell and Napa Valley's Dave Miner. Both previously had won ratings in the mid-90s from kingmaking critic Robert Parker.

For MT

Wine entrepreneur Igor Larionov

Larionov and Davis released three 2002 vintages: two shirazes from Mitchell's vineyards -- named "Triple Overtime" to commemorate Larionov's 2002 Stanley Cup goal against the Carolina Hurricanes -- and a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc from Miner's winery called "Hattrick."

The Napa Valley red sold rapidly in the United States at $55 per bottle. "I could have sold twice as much as we made," Davis said. The Triple Overtimes have been the flagship wines for the pair's international distributorship, selling 900 cases in Russia, 200 in Switzerland and 500 in Michigan so far.

Larionov and Davis believe in the potential of the Russian wine market, and plan to offer wines here in every price range -- though distribution and contractual issues have been considerably more complicated than in the United States.

"Igor told me to expect that," Davis laughed.

The pair will release its 2003 vintage next April, and will soon be distributing wines under other people's labels, but with the designation "An Igor Larionov Selection." Plans still under discussion include a high-end hockey-themed vodka to be sold in the United States and a big move into Canada, where Larionov is a household name.

As for the quality of the product so far -- which both stress is the highest goal -- Davis was unequivocal. "The wine was unbelievably good," he said. "We were so proud."

Larionov was more modest. "I was quite happy," he said. "But like in hockey: You did fine yesterday, but what matters is what you do tomorrow."