March 23, 2005

Time to play for Wings -- on Russian tour

Larionov will lead alumni in seven charity games



There is no mercy in hockey.

Even a game put on in friendship, between men who used to play for Detroit and men who usually run Minsk, is, in the end, about having a winner and a loser.

Ergo, anything goes.

Take, for example, Thursday. Igor Larionov will lead Red Wings alumni in a charity game in Minsk, Belarus, against a team whose roster will include Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. Before even leaving the United States, Larionov pulled aside teammate Joe Kocur, formerly an enforcer for the Wings and now an assistant coach, and singled out their high-ranking opponent.

"I told Joey, the first shift of the game, I want you to get some body-checks on that guy and get us going," Larionov said, smiling.

"I am looking forward to that game."

Thursday's contest is one in a string of seven that will take Larionov, Wings coach Dave Lewis, Kocur and more on a 12-day Russian tour that includes an excursion into Siberia. The group met Tuesday at Ginopolis' On The Grill in Farmington Hills for a bon voyage breakfast, after which it was scheduled to bus to Toronto, fly to Moscow and then take a train to Minsk.

"The guys we are going with are great ambassadors," Lewis said. "I think what Igor wants to do is establish an open liaison between the countries."

Decking Lukashenko is a bit radical as diplomatic moves go, although given Lukashenko's unpopularity Kocur may get a congressional medal of honor if he follows up on Larionov's good-natured suggestion. (In January, during confirmation hearings before the Senate, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Belarus one of the "outposts of tyranny" in the world.)

As part of the Minsk experience, Larionov has scheduled a trip to nearby Baranavichi, site of the Koldichevo concentration camp, where the Nazis murdered an estimated 22,000 people.

"I want to take the guys there to take a look, and bring some flowers," Larionov said.

Russia is in the midst of celebrating the 60-year anniversary of the end of World War II, a conflict that cost Russia and her satellites, then known collectively as the Soviet Union, an estimated 20 million people total.

The tour next dips into Siberia. Lewis joked Tuesday that he was "afraid to look up the temperatures," but Siberia is an enormous area (it's larger than Canada) and Tyumen, Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk all lie in the more temperate, southwestern region.

Part of the allure for Lewis, who previously has been only to Moscow, was the exotic nature of the itinerary.

"We're going to places I've never been," Lewis said. "The cities in Siberia we're going to, I can't pronounce. I'm looking forward to the whole environment, how the culture there differs from Moscow, from Detroit."

Once upon a time Chelyabinsk was home to political exiles; now, it is a key industrial city. Yekaterinburg is the Trans-Siberian railway's first major stop in Asian Russia, and a place rife with past historical figures. The city was founded under Peter the Great and named for his wife, Yekaterina, and is the hometown of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin. More sinister, it was where, on the morning of July 17, 1918, Bolsheviks executed Czar Nicholas II.

The places were selected specifically for their remoteness from Moscow.

"For the people in big cities, there are a lot of things happening, but people away from Moscow, they want to see a good hockey game, too," Larionov said. "That's why we're going to Siberia."

The last three games all are around Moscow, where former Wings defenseman Slava Fetisov, now the Russian minister of sport, will join the team. A film crew will document the experience for an eventual TV special. In each city, Larionov hopes to donate equipment to youth hockey programs.

Larionov, who retired from the NHL last season, was approached late last year by a group of alumni teams in Russia about the tour. Ever the good sportsman, Larionov readily agreed.

"It's all about making some new friends and promoting the game," he said.

With mercy for no opponent.