MONTREAL - After spending the last 16 years plying his trade in a Canadiens uniform, Andrei Markov will pursue his career in his native Russia next season in the KHL.
The 38-year-old defenseman confirmed the news via a conference call on Thursday afternoon, during which he shed some light on his decision to part ways with the only NHL team he has every played for to date.
It was by no means an easy day for the veteran blue-liner, who began the call by addressing the media with an emotional opening statement.
"I've never been nervous that way, even on my wedding day I wasn't nervous that much. I had to make a very difficult decision. I will not be back with the Canadiens next season. For the past 16 years, I was proudly wearing the Habs jersey. Each and every day, I realized how lucky I was to be a part of such a great hockey organization," said Markov, who was selected 162nd overall by the Canadiens in 1998. "I guess now it's time to move on. It's sad for me to leave. This organization was a big part of my life and always will be, but now I'm looking forward to new opportunities. They say that if one door closes, others will open."
Video: Conference call: Andrei Markov
When he couldn't agree to terms with the Canadiens on a new contract, that "door" opened with a club back home. While Markov already knows the identity of the team that will secure his services for the 2017-18 campaign, he wasn't prepared to reveal it publically since he hasn't yet put pen to paper and signed a KHL contract.
The talented rearguard admittedly had discussions with several NHL teams over the past few weeks, but he simply couldn't have imagined himself playing anywhere else but in Montreal.
"I knew in my heart that I was only going to sign in Montreal. I have a good relationship with everyone in the organization. But, it didn't work. It is what it is right now," said Markov, a father of four, who also stressed that family considerations played an important part in the move. "My decision was based on the family as well. I don't see myself with any other NHL teams. I didn't see myself wearing another jersey. Plus, it's going to be tough for the family, for the kids to move to another city in North America… I didn't want to wait until September or October [to make a decision], because I have to figure out where we're going to be and where the kids are going to go to school."
Departing just 10 games shy from reaching the 1,000 games played mark with the Canadiens is obviously a tough pill to swallow, but Markov is moving on to the next chapter of his life with memories aplenty from his time with hockey's winningest franchise.
"Probably the best memory was the first game [in October 2000]. I have such good memories and lots of memories. I played with great hockey players. The moment I'll never forget is when Saku came back from his cancer, and the crowd, the fans…It was amazing. The moment I'll also never forget is the All-Star Game in Montreal," recalled Markov, who ranks sixth on the franchise's all-time leaderboard for games played, tied for second for points by a defenseman, and ranked third for goals from the back end. "Each game is something special. The city of Montreal is all about hockey, and the fans are the best fans in hockey."
The consummate workhorse will certainly miss his familiar locker room digs, too.
"I guess the gym will be empty without me," cracked Markov, a staple in the weight room day after day all year long. "The atmosphere there inside the locker room, the feeling, you can't even imagine that feeling. But, what I'm going to miss most is when you step on the ice and the fans who support you every game. That's what I'm going to miss most, honestly."
Over the last decade-and-a-half, the Voskresensk native also learned valuable lessons that helped him maintain his standing as one of the top defensemen in the game.
"It's not easy to play in the NHL, and it's especially not easy to stay in the NHL. You need to work hard. You need to be ready for the pressure from the media. You need to be ready for the pressure from the fans," shared Markov, who has his sights set on taking part in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang next February. "Those 16 years, they're a big part of my life. I will remember that for the rest of my life. The experience I had here will stay with me forever."
Video: Looking back: Andrei Markov with the Canadiens
Interestingly enough, Markov didn't rule out a return to Montreal at some point down the road.
"You never know. I'm not closing my door to Montreal and I'm not closing my door to the NHL," stressed Markov. "But, today I'm going back to Russia and I think it's going to be fair for many people. I was born in Russia, I started playing there and I want to go back and play my best game there."
All the best to you and your family, Andrei!