By Colin Fleming Sports Illustrated
The NHL, in most matters, isn’t nearly as xenophobic as it used to be.
There was a time when almost all Europeans were viewed as “soft,” and the prevailing belief about Russian players was that the measure of their talent, however formidable, was measured by the “lesser” medals they won on the international stage rather than North America’s all-important Stanley Cup.
The worst part of this rap may have been that players like the legendary Soviets of the 1980s, veritable pioneers of beauty in the game, were discounted to a certain degree by some observers who lacked a full appreciation of the value of the World Championship, an annual tournament that is overshadowed in North America by the NHL playoffs.
The Worlds are going on now in Russia, and they are strange. The squads from the U.S. and Canada are comprised of a range of NHL players, part of it dependent on who really wants to go to the other side of the globe during their off-season.
You get stars from teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs, solid players from teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs, the occasional college kid, and then an influx of guys from teams that got bounced from the playoffs.
Certain players seemed to be there a lot in the past. Like Hall of Famer Marcel Dionne, the long-time Kings star before the Kings became an annual Cup threat.
Wayne Gretzky went once, after the Kings of all teams bounced his Oilers in the epic 1982 Miracle on Manchester upset, as if to see what the deal was with this oft-slighted tournament, and so no one could say there was something he hadn’t led in scoring at least once.
Alex Ovechkin, because his Capitals always under-perform in the spring, and as a Russian he’s more geeked up on the history of these things, puts in an annual appearance.
But what’s interesting is not only how little the Worlds count for, in terms of a prospective Hall of Fame résumé, but also the sense that regularly doing well there can almost work against you if they signify your annual centerpiece championship. True, the Soviets had their bounty of Olympic gold, but they were usually dashing the hopes of college kids and teams that would struggle to place more than a handful of players on the Soviet roster. The degree of difficulty of the Worlds was higher, and so was the price if that was your championship zenith, even if you were a singular talent.
Ask a friend some time, whether they’re, say, someone who is thirty-five or older or just a passionate hockey fan, to name the second best player of the 1980s. You know the inevitable responses. Mario Lemieux. Mark Messier. Some people will say Paul Coffey, maybe Ray Bourque or Denis Potvin. Mike Bossy or Bryan Trottier. Peter Stastny. Maybe a dark horse selection like Denis Savard. Do you know who nobody is going to say? Sergei Makarov, who was, in fact, the second best player of the 1980s.
He is also not a Hockey Hall of Famer. Makarov, a left winger, was part of the famed Soviet Green Unit along with center Igor Larionov (who is in the Hall), right wing Vladimir Krutov, and defensemen Slava Fetisov (another HOF’er) and Alexi Kasatonov, so billed because of the color of the pinnies they’d wear in practice and the way they took the ice as one. When Makarov came over the boards as a forward, out, too, tumbled Fetisov.
Suffice it to say, their approach to the game was unlike anything happening on this continent, and remains so, though it’s fascinating to watch teams like the Blackhawks employ a mini-version of the Green Unit’s flowing style.
Makarov would rip through the neutral zone in two strides—only Paul Coffey was a faster skater at the time—cross into the opponent’s end, then circle back out if he failed to see the lane he wished to find and exploit. In turn, he’d give the puck to someone like Fetisov and then get the pass back to bust up the other side as Krutov now took up the center lane and Larionov trailed the play.
Thirty years ago, at the 1986 Worlds, Makarov was in his prime. The Soviets usually won this tournament, with some member of the Green Unit leading in scoring, but hadn’t done so since 1983. Makarov remedied that with 18 points in 10 games as the Soviets juggernauted it up, but you had the feeling this was a diminished achievement. The North American squads never had a chance to gel, and this was what the Soviets lived for.
But what do we do with Makarov? The Hall of Fame has some big omissions. Normally, a guy has something huge against him, for all of his plusses, and that is why he is sentenced to the fence.
Eric Lindros, for instance, had a truncated career, and there’s a disconnect between what he was expected to do and what he did, fine though the latter was.
Rogie Vachon was never super elite, the clear cut best in the league for a spell, as the Hall likes its goalies to be—people like Gerry Cheevers aside.
But there is no galaxy in which Sergei Makarov is not three times the player Phil Housley was, no offense to a man who was always fun to watch, even though he wasn’t all that consequential.
For a Russian player to really get his due, he had to do something most pronounced on an international stage (like what Vladislav Tretiak and Valeri Kharlamov did at the ’72 Summit Series) or dominate international play and then have at least an average, and not short, career in the NHL. Fetisov and Larionov went the second route, but in a way, Makarov did, too.
He captured the Calder Trophy as a 31-year-old rookie (which resulted in a change in the eligibility rule) with the 1989-90 Calgary Flames, averaging over a point per game, despite playing in a totally different world and in a totally different style than the ones he’d known his entire life. He played six full NHL seasons through the mid-nineties for Calgary, San Jose and Dallas, twice scoring 30 goals, but unlike his fellow former Green Unit buddies Fetisov (nine seasons) and Larionov (14), he wasn’t a part of a Stanley Cup team, even as third line glue or a third D-pairing.
But Makarov was a three time Soviet MVP. Ten times he was named all-league. He was a nine-time scoring champion, a three-time goals leader. Along with his two Olympic golds, his stand-in for the Stanley Cup, you might say, is his 1981 Canada Cup win. Not the same cachet at all. No fault of Makarov’s, but that needs to be redressed.
And if you watch the 1987 Canada Cup final, that epic series between Canada and the Soviets—what might be the best three game stretch of hockey ever played—you will see that there are chunks of those games in which Makarov is the best player on either side.
There’s one shorthanded sequence when linemate Krutov bats the puck out of the air towards neutral ice.
A footrace ensues between Makarov and Bourque, with the former charging on Team Canada’s goal. Bourque was one of the best skaters in the world and Makarov utterly dusts him, then dekes Grant Fuhr clear out of his crease.
The Soviets would lose that tournament, and it wouldn’t earn them the brownie points that their forbears received after their Summit Series defeat.
There was a surprise factor there with the Summit, because no one rated the Soviets a shot at all. By the mid-eighties, they were old news, lovers of the Worlds, that tournament that someone like Brad Marchand, with not enough to do during his off-season, will go to seemingly more for the hell of it than possible hockey glory.
But people tend to forget how hard it is to simply chop wood at the same level, year in, year out, when one is about the best at what one does, with hope of receiving a limited amount of global recognition. There is no better exemplar of that, hockey-wise, than Makarov, and if you want to keep him out of the Hall you might as well snip out everyone from the 1980s not named Gretzky.