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A credit to him

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – When Andrei Markov first arrived in Montreal close to 15 years ago, his teammates at the time already knew there was something special about the Russian defenseman.

The parents and grandparents of many Canadiens fans will always be able to boast about having borne witness to some of the biggest names in the team’s 105-season history rewrite the record books. Today’s generation of young fans can now say the same, after watching Andrei Markov tie Doug Harvey for third place among defensemen on the Canadiens’ all-time scoring list with his 447th point, registered on an assist to Lars Eller during a rare Sunday night game at the Bell Centre.

Currently the most experienced Hab on Montreal’s roster, Markov has come a long way since being selected by the Canadiens in the sixth round -- 162nd overall -- of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. While the players in the Canadiens’ dressing room may not have known what to expect from their new teammate, who at the time had not yet mastered the English language, they soon learned that the Russian blue-liner was fluent in expressing himself with a puck and a stick.

“The first time I ever saw him play, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, what a hockey player he’ll be one day.’ I wasn’t wrong. I was his first partner on defense when he arrived in Montreal and I assisted his first NHL goal. Those are both great memories,” recalled Patrice Brisebois, who played six seasons in Montreal with Markov. “I’m not surprised that he’s had such a great career so far. He’s a guy who shows a lot of passion even if he doesn’t speak much. He’s a guy who can make the difference and get his team the win. He can be super funny once he gets to know you, and although you might never guess it, he actually loves cracking jokes.”

Michel Therrien first coached Markov during the defenseman's rookie 2000-01 season.

If Brisebois & Co. were there to help Markov get attuned to the North American style of hockey on the ice, then head coach Michel Therrien’s role was to teach him, more specifically, how to execute the team’s different strategies and systems. Even if doing so comes naturally to Markov these days, it was a different story entirely at the start of the 21st century when initially sitting down with his coach.

“I first met him when he was just breaking into the NHL, and now he’s 35 years old. Andrei is a guy who takes his job very seriously. When we first met, there was a bit of a language barrier between us. Each time we’d meet, we’d need a translator in the room,” laughed Therrien, who first coached Markov during the defenseman’s rookie season in 2000-01. “He’s a mature player. He’s a true professional who knows how to carry himself. He may not express it, but he’s a real competitor with a lot of character.”

Capable of adapting to the play of anyone he’s paired with on the blue line, Markov has always had a knack for helping his teammates look like superstars thanks to his efficient play at both ends of the ice. Just ask Craig Rivet, Sheldon Souray or Mike Komisarek, who were lucky enough to benefit from the Voskresensk native’s natural skill set over the years.

Perhaps not as spectacular or as fast as some of the NHL’s biggest stars, Markov nevertheless found his niche in the league, which has allowed him to rise to the top.

“He was always easy to play with because he was always in position and he read the game well. The best hockey players are those who never panic, and he always managed to stay patient. He was always on the lookout for the best option on the ice, and nine times out of 10 he would make the right play. That’s his strongest quality,” described Brisebois of the two-time NHL All-Star. “Being a good defenseman is about being strong offensively and defensively, and Andrei has all the right tools for both. He’s good enough offensively to play with the man advantage, and strong enough defensively to kill penalties. We’re talking about a guy who would be among the top two defensemen on any team in the league right now.”

The fact that Markov was able to hit such a prestigious milestone despite battling through a number of serious injuries over the years makes the feat all that more impressive. Having played in just 65 of the Canadiens’ 246 regular season games between 2009 and 2012, the veteran defenseman has worked tirelessly to regain his vintage form. He may not be as explosive as he once was, but he’s still able to stand out by controlling the game as he sees fit.

Teammates for six seasons, Patrice Brisebois insists Markov's patience was his strongest quality on the ice.

“Obviously he’s faced a lot of adversity. He worked hard to get back into the shape he’s in today. He deserves all the credit he gets,” said Therrien, who has only been without Markov’s services once in three seasons since returning to Montreal in June 2012. “He plays the game well. He’s able to anticipate plays and he sees everything that’s happening on the ice. Offensively, he has great vision and he’s never out of position defensively. Those are his strengths.”

While the Canadiens teams he’s played with over the years may not compare to the 1950s dynasty Harvey anchored six-and-a-half decades ago, Markov has nevertheless managed to impress in an era far removed from that of the Habs Hall-of-Famer. That’s saying a lot for someone who made his mark during a period when the emphasis was on defensive play. Although he may still be a ways off from hitting the totals of Guy Lapointe and Larry Robinson – who registered 572 and 883 points with Montreal, respectively – Markov’s name is not out of place alongside of those Canadiens legends.

“To see Andrei pass Doug Harvey and get so close to the top of the all-time list can only mean that he’s had huge career,” concluded Brisebois. “We always say that we don’t play for the stats. We play a team sport and our number one goal is to win. It’s only once you retire and look back at everything you’ve accomplished that you realize what you’ve achieved. I’m sure Andrei will realize the same one day, once he hangs up the skates.”

Hugo Fontaine is a writer for Translated by Steven Nechay.

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