(Today we begin a new series on the Flames top-10 draft picks of all time. FN writers were polled, their votes tallied and the players ranked accordingly. We begin the countdown to #1 with 10th placed Sergei Makarov.)
As Flames fans, we have become used to a particular phenomenon when it comes to who the organization selects at the NHL draft. That being the only thing most of us are sure about is that their pick is usually going to be “off the board” in some manner. Meaning, no one else is really sure of the pick either.
In 1983, the team indeed went off the board. Not in the sense that fans had razor blades at their readiness with their first round pick, but rather in the twelfth round, 231st overall the Calgary Flames took a flier on a player they were probably never going to see in their uniform. At 24 years of age, Sergei Makarov was easily a first round talent. Heck, he could have even gone first overall had it not been for the cold war and the fact he played in the Soviet Elite League.
At that time there were no such thing as deals or transfer agreements.
What made matters worse is Makarov played for Central Red Army, the flagship of the Soviet league; in other words, Hell would freeze over before he could ever play in North America at all, let alone for the Calgary Flames.
As a result, it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster steal for the Flames to take him so late. There was no reason to take a flier on Soveits at number one, or even in the first round. The ball didn’t even get rolling until the seventh round when the Habs took notorious Russian netminder Vladislav Tretiak with the 134th pick overall. Slava Fetisov followed in the 8th, Alexander Cherykh in the 10th and finally Alexei Kasatonov and Makarov in the twelfth. Oh and in case you were wondering…the Minnesota North Stars selected Brian Lawton with the first overall that year.
BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN
Makarov’s career in the Soviet Union was nothing short of spectacular. In his rookie season with Red Army, he scored 39 points in 44 games. By the time he was 21, he would have his best season, tallying 79 points in 49 games. He would then follow that with a 75 point effort but in three fewer games. What makes these numbers remarkable is the fact that seldom were second assists ever awarded on goals in the Soviet league. By the time the Flames drafted Makarov in 1983, he would have recorded 146 goals and 303 points in 213 games.
In his eleven seasons with Central Red Army, Makarov would write his own name into history, collecting Soviet “Player of the Year” eight times, three MVP awards (1980, 1985 & 1989). He led the league in scoring nine times (1980-82 & 1984-89), three of those years, he also led the league in goals. In 1984, Sergei Makarov was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour, given to honour “great deeds and services to the Soviet State and society”.
That was just his accomplishments within the Russian Super League. In international play, Makarov racked up two WJC gold medals, eight golds, one silver and a bronze in the World Championships as well as two golds and a silver medal in the Olympic Games. All in all, he would suit up for the national team 315 times. In 101 World Championship games, Makarov would record 118 points.
When the IIHF celebrated its centennial they asked 56 members from 16 different countries to name the “best six of all time”. Makarov was honoured alongside both Wayne Gretzky and his countryman and idol, Valeri Kharlamov.
HELL FREEZES OVER
In 1988, Sergei Pryakhin became the first Soviet player to play in the NHL, with permission. The following year the unthinkable happened when the Soviet Union allowed Makarov to join his countryman with the Calgary Flames in the NHL.
At 31, in his rookie season, Makarov notched 24 goals and 86 points in 80 games. He was 13th in the NHL with 62 assists, 4th in the league with a +/- 33 and a shooting percentage of 20.3%; good enough to earn him the Calder trophy as the league’s top rookie.
From the moment Makarov arrived in North America, he was under the proverbial microscope. So much so that after winning the Calder trophy, the NHL actually changed its criteria for eligibility. The Makarov Rule, as it became known, said that a player had to be no older than 26 in his rookie season to be eligible to win the award.
Added to the intense pressure was the unfamiliarity of the North American game. More accustomed to the intricate skilled passing game that was taught in the Soviet Union, Makarov now had to adjust to the NHL’s more physical dump-and-chase style of play. With time not exactly on his side, Sergei used his skills to further the play of those around him. Not many people would have pegged Gary Roberts as a model for goal scoring, hovering around the 20 goal average; that is until he played with Sergei Makarov. With #42 on his wing, Roberts would enjoy three of his best seasons in the NHL, notching 38, 39 and even 53 goals in the 1991-92 season.
TIME… IS NOT ON YOUR SIDE…
In his four seasons with the Calgary Flames, Sergei Makarov would total 94 goals and 292 points in 297 games played. The numbers were not as impressive or “remarkable” as his storied career in the Soviet league, but then again he came to the NHL nowhere close to his prime and was thrust into a playing style he was neither familiar nor comfortable with.
That being said, he still managed to be a near point per game player. What really makes it fitting having Makarov lead this series on the Flames top-10 draft picks of all time is that we have to remember this guy was never supposed to be here in the first place.
It wasn’t a question of not belonging in the NHL, his skill and what he brought to the game transcended the age issues and cultural divide. Rather, it just wasn’t plain fair. A time horizon that was skewed in the wrong direction has to be considered a mitigating factor, does it not? Just as it is unfair when a talent has his career cut too short, Makarov’s situation is very much likened to that scenario. Whether you consider it too short or forced because it began too late, Sergei wasn’t given enough time to make the impact he could have made. Of ccourse, if Makarov had been avilable to flee his homeland earlier, the Flames certainly would not have been able to draft him with a throw away pick n 1983 either.
There is no denying what Makarov meant to the game of hockey, but imagine… just imagine for a moment what he could have meant to the NHL or to the Calgary Flames if he was able to come over as that 24 year old phenom. The time he would have had to assimilate to the North American game and the effect he could have had on the game as a whole. Could he have given Gretzky a run for his money? The most unfortunate answer to that, is that we will never know…but it sure would have been fun to see.
As Sports Illustrated said, the Greatest NHL player to wear #42, Sergei Makarov. What say you FlamesNation? Could Makarov been higher on this list had he not come over six years after he was drafted?