The 15th in our 118-part series.
On a day that saw Scott Stevens voted into the Hall-of-Fame, we here at IPB want to take a moment to honor a player who fell short on the ballot this time around as a reason we love hockey: Igor Larionov. Way back in the 2003-2004 season, the Devils still had ol’ Igor on their roster, and he was driving us crazy. It was an odd season for the Devs — they were the defending Stanley Cup champs, to be sure, but there wasn’t a single person watching the NHL who suspected they were going to repeat, and for the first time in years there was upheaval on the blue line. Dano was gone. Nieder was was on his way out via free agency. And Stevens was concussed, but still ostensibly with the team, and no one was supposed to talk about it and [Lou's voice infiltrates the consciousness now to say: "FORGET YOU EVER HEARD ANYTHING ABOUT THIS"]. (It was very strange.) This was also our last year as season-ticket holders, so we went to almost every game, perched high in the last row of section 227, and tried to stave off slumber. The Devils were really that boring.
In the middle of all these maddening doldrums was the curious case of Larionov. He seemed to be playing a lot more than we would have used him if we’d been coaching, and also seemed constitutionally incapable of contributing in any positive way that would deviate from his reputation as a “brilliant set-up man”. By the midpoint of March he had appeared in some 40 or so games and had exactly 8 shots. Eight. And that was where things stood when we dragged our sorry carcasses up to our seats to suffer through another late-season “please tell me this will all be over soon” game. We settled in with our buddy Morgan and Boomer, who was visiting from Arizona and seeing the Devils at home in Jersey for the first time in years. We don’t remember at this point who the oppenent was, and it’s really moot, because the Devils were more than happy to beat themselves that night, with Larionov leading the way. At one point early in the game there was so massive a defensive breakdown by the visitors, and such a bizarre sequence of luck by the Devils, that Igor found himself on a breakaway. Clear-cut. With no one trailing because the Devils were all standing around staring off into space or something. And what did he do? Why, he passed, of course. To no one.
This proved to be too much for Pookie to bear. While not at all a betting woman (she learned a hard lesson after living with X and her “TELL ME WHEN!!” approach to wagering), she decided betting against Larionov shooting was money in the bank. Morgan rose to the challenge, and wagered Pookie that Larionov would have more shots at the end of the game than instances that the Devils were able to gain the offensive zone with speed. On the line? LarionovBucks, a fictional currency we’d invented at the start of the game while trying to figure out a rewards system the Devils could deploy for fans who had suffered through all of Larionov’s games that year. The competition was tense — every time the puck crossed the red line, Pookie and Morgan would cheer for something to happen, but time and again the Devils failed to gain the zone with speed and Larionov chose pass instead of shoot. It was tight going into the third, and as the clock ticked down, it looked like Pookie had locked it up; the Devils had gained the zone with speed three times and Igor had taken zero shots.
Then something magical happened. We were doing something we’d rarely done all season: laughing; and we actually cared what was happening on the ice. As if our renewed vigor and verve were flowing straight down from the upper deck into Igor’s creaky old legs, he suddenly roared to life and leapt onto a loose puck in the neutral zone. And as if possessed by some strange, anti-Devil demon, he dug in and made his closest approximation of darting down the ice. His linemates, puzzled and disoriented by this strange creature in the Larionov sweater, were forced to follow. The defenders, stunned at these signs of life from their heretofore moribund opponent, responded with panic and confusion. And — DING! That’s four! — the offensive rush gained the zone with speed. Morgan, knowing his entire bank of LarionovBucks was on the line, did what any sane person would do: he called for a miracle.
“Shoot!” He screamed at Larionov, who was wide-open and rumbling into the area of the tops of the face-off circles.
The concept was so hysterical, this bizarre idea of loudly exhorting Larionov to do something so impossible, that we joined in the cheer. “Shoot!” Repeated the four of us, up in a row at the back wall of the arena.
And he did.
And he scored.
Gentle Reader, we are people who laugh a lot. We giggle, we chortle, we guffaw, and yes, we have had more than our share of soul-enriching, side-splitting belly laughs. But we have never, not once in our lives, laughed as hard as we did in response to that goal. Morgan leapt to his feet, and in a delirium of mirth, ran across the aisle circling the back of the arena and hurled himself bodily against the wall behind us. Schnookie collapsed to her knees on the sticky concrete floor of row 227. Pookie turned so bright red she matched her Devils sweater, and tears poured down her cheeks. Much later, when we’d all regained our abilities to speak, it was agreed that a goal counted, in regards to the wager, as five shots, just because. Pookie was happy to concede all her LarionovBucks, though, because even though she lost the bet, we are all winners when Igor Larionov can score a goal.