In an NHL career that spanned 22 years for six teams, Gary Roberts scored 50 goals in a single season just once – and he will tell you it would never have happened without his right winger at the time, Sergei Makarov.
Makarov arrived in the NHL after the Calgary Flames’ 1989 Stanley Cup championship at the age of 31, a well-established international star for the great Soviet Union teams of the 1980s.
As Roberts was unexpectedly approaching the 50-goal milestone in 1991-92, he made a deal with Makarov.
“I promised him, if he got me to 50, I’d name my next son Sergei,” Roberts said. Days later, Makarov did just that and asked him if he actually planned to make good on his promise. Roberts laughed and replied: “I guess it just means we’re not going to have any more kids.”
Roberts finished the year with 53 goals, Makarov earning the first assist on 40, and did eventually have more children with his second wife. However, he couldn’t convince her that Sergei as a first name went well with the surname of Roberts.
“So instead, he named his dog Sergei,” Makarov said, in his typical deadpan fashion.
Makarov, who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday along with Eric Lindros, Rogie Vachon and Pat Quinn, was part of the first wave of Russian players to receive official permission from the Soviet federation to play in the NHL.
The cheerful affection between the two – Makarov, the dour Russian from Chelyabinsk in Russia, Roberts, the fun-loving Canadian from Whitby, Ont. – was always clear in their byplay.
When Makarov arrived in the NHL, he was deeply set in his ways. The style he played at the time is now known as puck possession and is universally celebrated. Back then, however, the NHL played more of a traditional dump-and-chase style of hockey and Makarov positively hated it because it went so against his engrained instincts.
“The first I dumped the puck into his corner for him to go get it, I remember he just looked at me and shook his head,” Roberts said. “We went back to the bench and he says, ‘Robs, why you dump puck in? Give me puck, you go to net.’ He had no interest in fore-checking; there wasn’t a chance he was going to go in and fore-check.
“He used to say to me, ‘Robs, puck on stick, puck on stick.’ I said, ‘Sergei, buddy, you gotta realize who you’re playing with. It’s not [Igor] Larionov or [Vladimir] Krutov or [Slava] Fetisov, it’s Gary Roberts. You’re going to get some passes in your skates, buddy. That’s just the way it is.”
Roberts greatly valued the partnership with Makarov and as a result, he and the line’s centre, Joe Nieuwendyk, tried to act as a buffer between him and the coaching staff. When Dave King took over the Flames in 1992, he usually kept Makarov on the bench in the final minutes of games in which Calgary led because he didn’t play defensive hockey in the traditional NHL way. Instead, journeyman Ron Stern would be used in Makarov’s place.
“It got to the point where, because I wasn’t playing him in the last two or three minutes of a game, he would undo his skates, take off his helmet, put his gloves in his lap, lean his stick against the glass and just sit there,” King said. “But one night, we were up two goals, so I thought we were safe and I barked: ‘Roberts, Nieuwendyk, MAKAROV!’ I did it late, too, so the line that was on the ice was already coming to the bench and now Sergei’s in a panic.
“He flips on the helmet, doesn’t do up the chin strap. Puts on his gloves, grabs his stick, didn’t get his skates tied up properly, and over the boards he goes. Immediately, he gets the puck and goes in and rings a shot right off the crossbar. He does a quick turn, comes back to the bench, sits down and gives me the longest stare you’ve ever seen.
“That was Makarov. Sometimes, it would happen to the players too. If a guy just shot the puck in, Sergei would give him that same look – like the kiss of death, as if he were wondering, ‘Who am I playing with?’ What planet are they from?’ But he was really a great player – and a really interesting guy.”
Makarov won the 1990 Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year at the age of 31, and prompted a change in the eligibility rules. The ‘Sergei Makarov rule’ added an age restriction – nowadays, a player over the age of 26 is disqualified from contention, even if it is his first NHL season.
Makarov became the third member of the so-called Russian Five to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame, after Fetisov and Larionov.
He was elected this June in his 16th year of eligibility, and according to Roberts, the honour was long overdue.
“People would always say to me, ‘Who’s the toughest guy in the NHL to get the puck away from?’ and I’d answer, ‘Jaromir Jagr.’ But the other guy was Sergei. Sergei wasn’t a tall guy, but remember how thick he was? He’d play keep-away with us in practice and you couldn’t lift his stick up because he was built like a fire hydrant. He protected the puck as well as anyone in the NHL ever has.
“He taught us about puck control and he made us all much better players.”
THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME’S CLASS OF 2016
Pat Quinn (builder)
Following a nine-year playing career that included stops in Toronto, Vancouver and Atlanta, Quinn began his coaching career as an assistant with the 1977-78 Philadelphia Flyers and was behind the bench for the Flyers’ NHL record 35-game undefeated streak in the 1979-80 season. Quinn was head coach of Canada’s 2002 Olympic and 2004 World Cup championship teams. Quinn also served on the Hockey Hall of Fame’s selection committee from 1998 to 2013 and was the HHOF’s chairman of the board at his death in November, 2014.
The first overall choice in the 1991 NHL entry draft, Lindros scored 865 points in a 760-game career shortened by concussions after 13 seasons. The 1995 Hart Trophy winner as the NHL’s most valuable player, Lindros was the fifth fastest player in league history to score 500 career points. Internationally, he represented Canada at three Olympic Games, winning gold in 2002, and played on the 1991 Canada Cup championship team as a teenager.
Makarov led the Russian league in scoring nine times in a 13-year career split between Traktor Chelyabinsk and CSKA Moscow. He played in three Olympics, winning two gold medals and one silver, and was also part of the Soviet Union’s 1981 Canada Cup victory. He won the Calder Trophy as a 31-year-old NHL rookie in 1990, and finished a 424-game NHL career with 384 points. Makarov was previously inducted in the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2001 and was chosen for the IIHF’s centennial all-star team in 2008.
The runner-up to Bobby Clarke for the 1975 Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, Vachon won three Stanley Cup championships with the Montreal Canadiens at the start of his career, before being traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1971, where he had his number retired in 1985 after a distinguished seven-year tenure. Vachon was the most valuable player of the 1976 Canada Cup, and is 17th on the goalie career wins list with 355. He shared the 1968 Vézina Trophy with Gump Worsley.
Eric Duhatschek is a member of the 18-person Hockey Hall Of Fame selection committee and the 2001 winner of the Elmer Ferguson award for distinguished hockey journalism.Report Typo/Error