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Makarov had immense influence on Roberts, Flames

Playing with Sergei Makarov helped propel Gary Roberts to 53-goal season in '91-'92

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH /

Children's given names are chosen from a wide scope of inspirations.

Moods. Places. Favourite fictional characters. What's trendy at the time. Pop or movie stars. Beloved family members.

But the stocky, solemn, Soviet right winger on your hockey line?

"That first season I played with Sergei Makarov,'' confesses Gary Roberts, "if we'd had a son born that year, I would've had to call him Sergei.

"I told him that, too.

"I mean, I scored 53 goals playing with the guy. If you look, I'll bet he first-assisted on 35 of them.

"So I figured the least I could do was name someone in my family after him."

(When reminded of the jokey promise, Makarov sighs. So, then, what about it: Sergei Roberts? "Nice name," he says, slightly baffled. "But I no think so").

Serious offer or not, what's beyond dispute is the influence Sergei Makarov -- reading to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 14th -- exerted on the Calgary Flames players when he joined the club in the fall of 1989.

Gary Roberts, chief among them.

"I know he made me a way better player,'' admits Roberts, who'd go on to play over 1,200 NHL regular season games and flirt with the magical 1,000-point (910) barrier. "He taught us about puck control. He did not want to give the puck up, under any circumstances.

"And when we did, he'd get mad at us.

"You watch a guy like that and you see what's possible. Sergei always wanted us to make a play. Yes, sometimes we got in trouble because we were making too many drop-passes -- probably drove Crispie (Terry Crips) and Kinger (Dave King) nuts -- but we were making ourselves better.

"He always used to say to me: 'Robs, Robs, puck on stick. Not in skates. On stick.' So I had to tell him: 'Sergei, buddy, sorry but you're going to get some pucks in your skates playing with me.'

"I was so fortunate. I get to Calgary, and my first two right wingers are Hakan Loob and Sergei Makarov. How good is that?"

Those 53 goals through '91-92 remain second most during a season by any player in franchise history and tops among left wingers.

Makarov, of course, had joined the Stanley Cup-champion Flames in Moscow to start the second half of their 1989 Friendship Tour (they'd opened with two games in the Czech Republic).

"Being in Russia of that time certainly made us appreciate Canada, I can tell you that,'' reminisces Roberts. "I know if I saw one more bottle of Pepsi or plate of rubbery Chicken Kiev …

"And what really struck me were the pop machines. You'd put in a coin and you'd take a drink out of a cup, then place the cup back in the pop machine for the next person to use. Everybody shares the same cup!

"That was only one of the things I saw that just blew me away."

Another eye-opener arrived the night Roberts and Nieuwendyk were invited to Makarov's apartment for dinner.

"Sergei, remember, was the 'Wayne Gretzky of Russia','' Roberts reminds you.

"And this place was small.

"I think it worked out to 300 square feet per person, so 900 total square feet. We had to go up in twos in the elevator to get to this penthouse apartment. But in that 900 square feet he had this amazing trophy room of all the crystal he'd won during his career.

"I remember this room, a tiny little room, but it had a ton of crystals. That's when I think I fully realized all that he'd accomplished in his 20s to be who he was at 30.

"The other thing I remember was his wife, Vera, brought in fresh vegetables. Because Sergei was the 'Gretzky of Russia' he got a little piece of land outside Moscow to grow his own vegetables. So she'd gone all the way out to get the vegetables for us, to make us feel welcome.

"I was, what 23, then? So it was kind of cool to be able to learn about his life in Russia at that time."

The hockey tutoring began almost instantly, involuntarily, almost by osmosis.

"There was nobody who could take the puck down the ice like Sergei Makarov,'' reminisces Roberts. "Nobody. He didn't even seem to move. He had that way of swaying without really lifting his feet, and people would just sail past him.

"Just an amazing, amazing player who accomplished so, so much before he got here. Then everyone was p--ed off when he won the Calder. But those were the rules at the time.

"And people might not believe this, but he was a really funny guy. I loved to listen to him talk, express himself. He was serious, sure, but get a few beers in him and you saw this other side. He told us some crazy stories about (Viktor) Tikhonov and playing for Soviet Red Army.

"We had some great times with Sergei Makarov."

Another such time is just around the corner, Nov. 14th in Toronto at the 2016 Hockey Hall of Fame induction festivities.

"I'm going to take part in that weekend with Joe,'' says Roberts. "It'll be fun. We'll get an opportunity to see Sergei again, talk over old times and congratulate him.

"He deserves it.

"What a player."

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