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Fletcher recalls bringing Makarov to Calgary

Cliff Fletcher recounts how the Flames were able to bring Sergei Makarov over to North America

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH /

Even decades later, like so many before him witness to the man's gifts, Cliff Fletcher can't help but wonder, 'What if?'

"Oh, you do wonder what he would've been like, what he could've achieved, had he arrived in the National Hockey League earlier," Trader Cliff, the architect of the Calgary Flames' 1989 Stanley Cup Team, is admitting, long distance from Toronto.

"He had such incredible ability.

"Sergei Makarov, remember, was always called The Wayne Gretzky of Europe. Just a great, great hockey player under the old Soviet system with Red Army.

"He was arguably, during his prime, the best player in the world.

"That kind of a description is always debatable, of course, because by the time he was released to come over and play with us, probably his greatest years were behind him.

"But even then, when he joined us, we'd never seen a skill level like that.

"He did things with the puck you thought were impossible."

By the time Makarov made the leap to North America, he was 30 years old and the Flames were freshly-minted Stanley Cup champions, hockey's deepest organization, poised (or so everyone thought) to put together a sizeable championship run.

Combining the strength of a stevedore with the light touch of a diamond cutter and the obstinacy of a mule, the stocky winger from Chelyabinsk had already reached legendary status internationally (when the IIHF named its centenary six, Makarov was there, alongside fellow Soviet stars Valeri Kharlamov, Vyacheslav Fetisov and Vladislav Tretiak, along with Sweden's Borje Salming and Canada's No. 99, Wayne Gretzky).

He joined the Flames in Moscow to open their Friendship Tour of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia in the fall of 1989, having already collected two Olympic and World Junior Championship gold medals to go along with eight World Championship titles.

Since Fletcher had drafted Makarov 231st overall at the 1983 entry draft, to much, 'Oh yeah, right?' incredulity/merriment from his managerial brethren, he had been in constant contact with the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation over releasing the right flank of the game's most potent attacking unit, the fabled KLM (Vladimir Krutov-Igor Larionov-Makarov) line.

"The growing threat of players defecting from the Soviet Union, I think, influenced their decision,'' reasons Fletcher, 27 years later. "They must've felt they had to at least investigate the possibility of making players available. That was certainly a better option for them than having them leave for nothing."

As a test, the Soviets had allowed a journeyman winger, Sergei Pryakhin, a late pick of Calgary, in 1988, to act as an advance man.

"Just sort of a player out of the blue", according to Fletcher. On tour in Ontario with a Russian club team, Pryakhin joined the Flames for one season, the Cup-winning campaign.

(On May 29th, 1989, the sight of Pryakhin, in suit and tie, completely mystified watching the Cup-clinching celebrations inside the Montreal Forum, Stanley Cup ball cap perched awkwardly on his head, price tag/label hanging limply, is unforgettable to anyone there that night).

"I think the Soviets believed Pryakhin's introduction to an NHL had gone very well,'' recalls Fletcher. "That's when they decided to let a couple of their star players go.

"So (Vancouver Canucks' GM) Pat Quinn and I went over to Moscow, got there on the same day at the end of June in '89. On July 1st, Pat signed Igor Larionov and we signed Makarov."

Makarov's release cost the Flames $750,000, split evenly between Soviet Federation/government and the player as seasonal salary.

"For us,'' Fletcher recalls, "it was a very timely thing. After we'd won the Cup a few months prior, Hakan Loob let us know that he was going back to Europe. Which, obviously, created an awful hole for us on right wing.

"Being able to acquire Makarov sort of compensated for the loss of Loob."

Given the, Makarov's first season in the NHL, with Joe Niewendyk and Gary Roberts assuming the Larionov-Krutov roles, had to qualified a success. He wound up with 86 points to lead all freshmen in scoring.

With his status and experience, though, a Makarov-Calder backlash had been brewing since the beginning, what with kids the calibre of Mike Modano and Jeremy Roenick also bucking for the award. At that time, all players - regardless of age - were eligible.

Protestations fell on enough deaf ears, however, and Makarov would become the fourth player in the organization's history to collect the Calder.

But his moment of triumph would also lead to a change in the voting procedure, now known as the Makarov Rule, making only players under 26 in line for the award.

"He did experience some frustrations when he got to Calgary,'' concedes Fletcher. "He was so used to being with Larionov and (Vladimir) Krutov in that system they played to perfection that I suppose it was inevitable.

"I remember once, a player - I won't mention his name - passed the puck to him and missed his stick by a foot or two and Sergei just banged his own stick on the ice a couple of times and shook his head.

"On the whole, though, I thought he did a good job adjusting. I got to know he and his wife of that time pretty well. And he was a very engaging person when you were with him one-on-one."

Following the Calder years, Makarov would play three more seasons for the Flames, finishing his tenure here having scored 94 goals and adding 198 assists.

"When I think of Sergei,'' says the man who engineered his release and arrival in Calgary, on the eve of Makarov's joining him in the Hockey Hall of Fame, "I think of the goals he scored for us and the plays he made for us that were just … spectacular.

"There's no other way to describe them.

"So, no, maybe we didn't see the best of him over here.

"But what we did see was pretty darn good, I'd say."

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