Sergei Makarov will be inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, an honor he absolutely deserves. He joins Ed Belfour, Rob Blake, and his longtime linemate Igor Larionov as former Sharks in the Hall. Makarov officially retired in 1996, and every year it seemed increasingly unlikely that the selection committee would give him this honor. His international credentials are phenomenal, but his time in the NHL was shorter than that of Larionov and Slava Fetisov.
Better writers will recount Makarov’s numerous successes in the Soviet league and international competitions, and the struggles he and his teammates faced in leaving the Soviet Union to play in the NHL. Since this is a Sharks blog, let’s focus on his time in San Jose.
The season prior to Makarov’s arrival, the Sharks won 11 games. You read that correctly. Eleven wins in a full season. Between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day, they won exactly one game. Think about how bad the Sabres were two years ago when they were tanking for McDavid.
That team had nearly two and a half times as many points as the 1992-93 Sharks. That season was not exactly a great one for Makarov either. Despite scoring a respectable 57 points in 71 games, he wore out his welcome with the Flames coaching staff, allegedly due to his defensive shortcomings. Even if true, this seems harsh, as exactly nobody played defense in the early ‘90’s.
Makarov needed a change of scenery. The Sharks needed better hockey players.
The Flames traded Makarov to Hartford, who traded him to the Sharks in a package of picks. He was seen as a throw-in in this deal (some trade sites don’t even list him as being part of it). The 1993-94 season was going to be an important one for the team, as it would be the first played in their new, permanent home on Santa Clara Street. They brought in a new coach, Kevin Constantine, and Bob Errey replaced Doug Wilson as captain. Makarov (and Larionov) fit in perfectly with this new look team. They brought a level of skill that the team had been sorely missing.
The Sergei Makarov we got to see in teal was not the player he had been on the vaunted KLM line. He was not the nearly point per game player that he had been during his four seasons in Calgary. But he was better than any previous Sharks. He led the team in scoring during his first season, and made fans believe in this new team.
His skills were clearly declining—sometimes he would make amazing plays, and sometimes he would misfire and shake his head, clearly upset with himself. As we all know, the Sharks made the playoffs that year, and they upset the Red Wings in the first round. Jamie Baker’s series-clinching goal has become the defining moment of that round, but that moment might never have happened, were it not for Makarov scoring six goals over the seven game series.
My favorite memory of Sergei Makarov is from March 20, 1994. As soon as individual tickets went on sale prior to the 1993-94 season, I bought two tickets to that day’s game against the Kings. I had never seen Wayne Gretzky in person, and I was thrilled to get the chance. As the date approached, my anticipation heightened: the Sharks were a few points ahead of the Kings for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
And if the excitement of the Sharks chasing their first post-season appearance wasn’t enough, Gretzky was bearing down on Gordie Howe’s record of 801 career goals. He had 799 before that game, so a hat-trick against the Sharks would see him break the record at the Tank. Gretzky scored to put the Kings up 2-0 late in the first period, and there was a sense of resignation, at least among the people sitting around me.
Of course Gretzky was going to break the record in our brand new barn. Of course the Kings, Cup finalists the previous season, were going to pick up two points on the Sharks in the playoff race. Even back then, we expected bad things to happen.
After that first goal, Gretzky didn’t even pretend to play defense. He just hung out at the red line and waited for his teammates to spring him on a breakaway. Something about this whole situation really seemed to get to Makarov, and for the next two periods he was the best player on the ice. He scored twice and could have had two more. Maybe it was a point of pride for him, one of the few players who, at the top of his game, might have been as skilled as Gretzky.
Whatever the reason, this was likely the best game Makarov played for the Sharks. Gretzky would score again, with the goalie pulled, to tie Howe’s record and send the game to overtime. The game ended in a tie, but Gretzky didn’t have his coronation as the league all-time leading goal scorer on our ice. Makarov didn’t let that happen.