MONTREAL - Sergei Berezin's tenure with the Canadiens was brief, but his impact on Andrei Markov 's career has been going strong for years.
For over half a decade, Berezin has served as Markov's personal trainer during the offseason in Boca Raton, FL. Their working relationship began for real as the Canadiens' No. 79 battled back from a trio of surgical procedures on his right knee - including two ACL reconstructions - between May 2010 and December 2011.
Every summer, Markov enjoys a couple of weeks of downtime before Berezin begins preparing him for the rigors of another NHL season. As evidenced by Instagram posts on both Markov and Berezin's accounts respectively since late April, things weren't any different this time around, either.
Over the last four months, the pair has worked tirelessly to ensure that the Russian rearguard is primed for his team-leading 16th year in a Canadiens uniform, engaging in everything from beach and swimming pool workouts to dry-land training exercises and lengthy runs along neighborhood sidewalks. On the ice, Berezin has his fellow Voskresensk native going equally as hard, albeit without the scorching Florida sun shining down on him to up the sweat factor, of course.
According to Berezin, who develops workout regimens primarily by tapping into old-school methods used by some of his former coaches all across the globe, Markov's fitness level is still very much on the upswing at 37 years of age - which certainly isn't the norm.
"He's actually getting better. This is what's amazing about Andrei. I make up a schedule for him for a week. He's always there. He's working hard. He's a real workaholic and a real ironman. I've played with a lot of hockey players and worked with a lot of athletes, and Andrei is just off the charts. He's really unbelievable," said Berezin, who met his future trainee when he was dealt to the Canadiens on January 24th, 2002 in a trade with the Phoenix Coyotes - three days before he scored the 10,000th home-ice goal in franchise history.
"I've always kept the notes from every single workout and practice we've done together. His results are better than they were two, three or four years ago. That doesn't come out of nowhere, though. This is commitment. Words cannot describe what he's like when he's working out. I'm absolutely 100 percent sure he'll be at his best this season," added the 44-year-old, who firmly believes Markov is in a category of his own when it comes to maintaining his focus year-round and honing his craft, often referring to him in social media captions as "the hardest working man [he] knows."
That penchant for putting in the necessary workout time and maintaining healthy lifestyle habits has gone a long way towards helping Markov come within 72 games of becoming just the sixth player to ever suit up for 1,000 regular season games with the Canadiens. He'd also be just the second Canadiens defenseman to ever accomplish the feat, joining Larry Robinson. If everything goes as planned, he could hit the prestigious plateau on March 19th, 2017 at the Bell Centre. Interestingly enough, Markov also sits just 37 points shy of surpassing Guy Lapointe for second spot on the Canadiens' all-time points list among defensemen.
The thought of his former teammate reaching milestones like those during the 2016-17 campaign has Berezin beaming with pride and excitement.
"Montreal is hockey madness. It's so special. When I think about it, this little kid from Russia is about to play 1,000 games for one NHL team - and that team happens to be the Montreal Canadiens. It's the most iconic team there is," said Berezin, who watches every single one of Markov's games on TV and offers up his feedback following each contest, win or lose. "I keep reminding him about that milestone. I tell him - 'You're making history. You're doing something special.' As long as he's playing, we'll keep on working together. He just keeps on going."
In addition to pushing Markov physically, Berezin also does his best to encourage him and keep him mentally sharp through the inevitable ups and downs that come with being a professional athlete. The Canadiens' struggles this past season were especially tough for Markov and the rest of Michel Therrien's troops to swallow, so Berezin knew that providing the two-time Olympian with some extra emotional support would ultimately go a long way.
"The season was a negative one for Andrei. He was down on himself. But, we tried to turn it into a positive when we started working. We had more time to prepare. That included mental preparation, too. You can be in the best shape of your life, but if you're not prepared mentally, it's not going to work. We work on that every day. We talk. We barbecue together. It's all about keeping him loose," explained Berezin, who clearly has a great deal of respect and admiration for his countryman's accomplishments. "It's long and hard days for him all year. I'm trying to find the right words to keep him going. I remind him about all the good stuff he's done in his career - and all the good stuff that's still to come. That keeps him young."
There's no denying the chemistry the two men have managed to build over the years. In Berezin's eyes, Markov is far more than just a good friend. He's family. That makes combining forces and seeing positive results all the more meaningful.
"We have a special bond. You cannot make the player better if he doesn't want it bad enough. Andrei wants it. He wants to win. He's all about the team, so he always does his part to prepare for the season. I'm lucky to witness the greatness of it," said Berezin, who looks forward to Markov one day raising the Stanley Cup over his head as a member of the Canadiens in June. "That's the one thing that's missing. Basically, we've been staying on course with the big prize in our minds, even with the World Cup starting before the season. I keep my fingers crossed that it's all going to work out in the end."
As do Canadiens fans the world over with a brand new year on the horizon.