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Makarov had immediate impact in Calgary

The Russian forward transitioned seamlessly to the NHL after joining the Flames in 1989

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH /

Flashback to Sept. 13, 1989: The museum guide is waving a tiny Canadian flag atop a sea of bobbing heads, frantically motioning for stragglers in his party to catch up.

The opening game of the Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames' Soviet Friendship Tour lies a day away in Leningrad, against Khimik.

On this afternoon, a sightseeing delegation of players, wives, girlfriends and staff are touring the iconic Hermitage Museum, founded by Catharine the Great and open to the public since 1852.

"And here,'' intones the guide, motioning to an instantly-recognizable canvas before clearing his throat, "is Rembrandt's famous 'The Return of the Prodigal Son'."

Permitting himself a small, satisfied smile, the time had arrived for a punch line he'd been waiting all afternoon to deliver.

"That is like when Mr. Makarov comes back here to play."

Twenty-seven years later, the Prodigal Son is back in Russia, living in Moscow.

But as for playing …

"Playing,'' says Sergei Makarov wryly, "was a long time ago."

And yet for those old enough to remember, those who - regardless of citizenship allegiance or, later, team rooting interest - couldn't help but marvel (often grudgingly) at the sublime, virtually unparalleled combination of strength, balance and finesse, it seems like only yesterday.

On Nov. 14, one of the greatest international players ever will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, a full 15 years after entering the IIHF Hall of Fame.

"Of course it's great,'' says Makarov, over the nine-hour time difference between Calgary and Moscow. "I'm happy. Hall of Fame is for players people remember.

"But a long time I'm retired. I just watch hockey on TV now. For fun, for friends. I'm a fan.

"I never think about (the Hall of Fame).

"So, no, I don't expect it."

Others did. Have, for a while now.

"About time?'' considers his centreman here in Calgary, Joe Nieuwendyk.

"I'd say so."

Even well ahead of the induction date, Makarov seems slightly uncomfortable with the upcoming fuss. Reminded that he was obliged to get dolled up in a tuxedo once before, in the summer of 1990, to receive the Calder Trophy as an advanced-age Rookie of the Year, he laughs.

"This will be second time. New suit. Different size."

And, what will someone of such few words say during his acceptance speech?

"Shoot the puck! Shoot the puck!"

The man always did have a droll sense of humor.

After joining the Calgary Flames in the wake of a career in the fabled red of the old USSR and at club level for Soviet Red Army, Sergei Makarov, already approaching legendary status, led the influx of star Russians into the NHL.

"I was not a young guy,'' he reminds you. "I play a lot of games against (the NHL) and they were the enemy. I felt a little uncomfortable.

"I was in hockey long time so no surprises. Just different. Guys speak a different language. Life is totally different in Canada. More fun, just … different.

"But on the ice, it's no problem."

Even at 30, the man's skill level remained breathtaking.

"His lateral movement, vision, hockey sense, stick strength was, as Badger Bob (Johnson) would say, world class,'' rates another Hall of Famer, defenceman Al MacInnis.

"If you followed the international game, you marvelled at the Big Five, but until you see a guy on the ice every day, you can't get an understanding of how good he really is.

"To get the puck off Sergei Makarov, basically you had to take a penalty. That's how strong he was on his skates.

"If we were doing a one-on-one compete drill in practice, you could see the defencemen shuffling back in line because they didn't want to go against him for fear he'd embarrass you.

"That's how good he was."

Arguably the greatest gift Makarov gave the Flames over his four seasons here was raising the skill-level ambition bar, particularly among younger players.

"Poor Robs,'' laughs MacInnis, referencing left winger Gary Roberts. "On the power play, he'd always be yelling for the puck. 'Sergei! Sergei! SERGEI!' We'd get back to the bench and Sergei'd just look at him, shake his head sadly, and say: "Robs, Robs … no yell. No scream. Me see you. Okay, Robs? So, no yell. No scream.'

"And he'd be giving Robs tap-ins and empty-netters all day long."

Looking back, does Makarov think he helped his foreign teammates?

"Not help. But I tried to show these guys a different style of hockey. Great players already but I wanted them to see another way to play. More with the puck. Smarter."

Centre Joel Otto had battled the famous CCCP's No. 24 for the USA at the '87 Canada Cup and a couple of World Hockey Championships prior to his arrival.

 But as Al MacInnis points out, up close, day-to-day is an entirely different viewpoint.

"We'd horse around after practice, play keep-away and stuff and it was like: 'C'mon … this isn't fair','' recalls Otto.

"He was probably set in his ways at that age, and I think adapting to the North American game probably frustrated him a little bit, and also frustrated the coaches.

"But the things he could do on the ice …

"He had the vision of a Gretzky. At times he saw the ice very slowly, at a speed most of us can't. So strong, too. A horse, a rock, in terms of corner battles.

"And he may have been older then but there was still this burning desire inside him to excel.

"One of the top five skilled guys, competitors that I was fortunate enough to play with."

On the ice, given his immense reputation, the newness of Russian players to the North American game and the ongoing intensity of hockey's most famous international rivalry, the longtime KLM star received no favours.

"He got … crucified,'' remembers Otto. "After games, there were scratches all over his body from stick-hooks, welts from slashes, his jersey was full of black-tape marks. He had to be frustrated but he pushed through it.

"He was constantly battered, so for him to put up the numbers he did, come over to a different culture, not speak the language well … an incredible thing to see."

Yes, that first season, '89-90, seemed to be open season on Makarov.

"I don't know how many defencemen broke sticks over this guy's back and shoulders,'' marvels Nieuwendyk, "yet he was still able to make these unbelievable plays to Gary and I."

Echoes MacInnis: "Some of the stuff he had to deal with back then, in that era, being a guy with the puck on his stick so much …

"I swear, you'd go to jail today.

"Can you imagine how good a guy like Makarov would be in the current game, with no hooking, no holding, hardly any slashing?

"Scary. Downright scary."

Makarov arrived here very much set in his ways, the product of an unquestioned structure system, married to his first wife, Vera, with sons Artem and Tom (who still lives in Calgary, flying to Australia often on business, says his dad).

"To do what he did, you really had to be a strong person as well as an incredible player,'' reminds MacInnis. "Remember, hockey-wise you're coming to a different sized ice surface and a different game,

"Then off the ice, nothing is as you know it. Everything you do, from going to the grocery store to calling a plumber, is different.

"Maybe because he was older and a little more mature it didn't take him as long to adjust and he was able to handle the transition more smoothly.

"Still, you really had to admire him."

Twenty-seven years later, he long ago stopped being just Russia's Prodigal Son anymore. But the world's.

The game's.

And here, at the Saddledome, is where the trailblazing portion of a singularly distinguished career began.

"Calgary,'' he says in the familiar halting english, "will always be in my heart.

"Good memories."

A wistful pause.

"Yes, good memories."

Sergei Makarov's legacy may not hang in what is now renamed St. Petersburg, inside one of the iconic salons of the Hermitage Museum. 

But 30 Yonge St., Toronto, inside the iconic corridors of the Hockey Hall of Fame will do just fine.

And as Joe Nieuwendyk reasoned, for many of us:

"About time?

"I'd say so."

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