Andrei Markov’s Canadiens legacy tied to helping teammates cash in

Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban (76) celebrates with teammates Andrei Markov (79) and Rene Bourque after scoring the first goal against the Ottawa Senators during game five first round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey action Thursday May 9 , 2013 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

MONTREAL — Michel Therrien famously dubbed Andrei Markov “The General,” but I had a different nickname for him. To me, Markov will always be known as “The Moneymaker,” because, to put it bluntly, he helped several players he lined up with earn some of the biggest paycheques of their careers.

On Thursday, the 41-year-old, who was best known for his incredible vision, his perfect first passes and his power play wizardry, left the pro game for good and did so as quietly as he came to it.

That Markov’s retirement was announced by Sport-Express reporter Igor Eronko in a 215-character tweet, that it was later confirmed to multiple media outlets by agent Sergey Isakov and devoid of a single comment from the man himself, was totally fitting. Markov’s game was loud, expressive and avant-garde in many senses, but his persona away from the ice left much to the imagination.

There are men of few words, and then there’s Markov. He was the master of the one-word answer. He had a sense of humour as dry as the Sahara and relied on it almost exclusively when dealing with reporters — delivering jabs in deadpan monotone. And it wasn’t so much that he didn’t suffer fools as it was that he didn’t suffer anyone.

As a result, few of us in the media ever truly got to know the real Markov over parts of 16 seasons he spent with the Montreal Canadiens.

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Heck, in speaking with them, few players who dressed alongside him over that time got past his gruff exterior to really connect with him.

But everyone (media and players alike) had a keen sense of what made Markov a special hockey player. Even a guy like Mike Cammalleri — whose three seasons with the Canadiens from 2009-2012 coincided with the most injury-plagued portion of Markov’s career — could offer a perfect description of it.

“He had the ability to make plays that other guys just didn’t,” Cammalleri told Sportsnet in a telephone interview Friday morning. “He had a lot of deception in his passing. He was one of those guys that could swing a seam-pass or a cross-ice pass or a pass up the middle without anyone reading what he was going to do. It’s become much more in vogue now; those plays are actually encouraged by coaching staffs now, but back in those years the mentality from most coaching staffs in their systems was to still keep the puck on the wall.

“But Marky had this ability to just look up the wall and hide it — especially on his forehand — and throw a pass up the middle and just hit someone right on the tape. And sometimes guys didn’t even suspect it, the passes were so good. I remember his ability to do that really standing out for me.”

It wasn’t just the vision, the creativity and the passing that stood out to me. Markov’s defensive game was as sound as they come. His physical play was as underrated as his penalty-killing ability, and it was because he was so captivating and brilliant on offence that those things were largely ignored in the evaluation of his overall game.

Regarding his offence, you saw it shine through most on the power play. Markov’s awareness allowed him to sneak his way through coverage for many back-door goals and it enabled him to time his pinches perfectly. His quick reflexes kept plays that were destined for death alive at the offensive blue line. His pure skill made everyone around him better.

Cammalleri only sampled it for 65 games over that three-year period, but that was enough to form a lasting impression.

“He had this heel-curve and he would shelter a shot and pass and hide it with great deception on the power play,” Cammalleri said. “He had the ability to freeze people. He’d freeze the defenders, freeze the goalie and make a pass that, A) people weren’t suspecting, and B) people weren’t inclined to try.

“Again, it’s become a lot more popularized now, but if you look back at games a decade ago, the coaching was still of the mindset of trying to dumb it down and simplify it in a lot of ways. You still hear the clichés and the rhetoric of that, but it’s much more open-minded now. When it was closed, it didn’t matter to Markov; he just had the confidence to make the play he thought was best for the team at that point.”

Markov almost always made the right pass, and so many players benefited from that.

It was those plays Markov made that helped Sheldon Souray score 26 goals and 64 points with the Canadiens over the 2006-07 season — setting the hard-shooting defenceman up for a five-year, $27-million contract he signed with the Edmonton Oilers in short order.

With Souray gone, Mark Streit became the next beneficiary of Markov’s brilliant playmaking. The Swiss defenceman rode it to a 13-goal, 62-point season that was rewarded with a five-year, $20.5-million contract from the New York Islanders in the summer of 2008.

And then there was Mike Komisarek. His stay-at-home bruising style was a perfect complement to Markov’s puck-moving, rush-joining and pinching ways, but he’d be the first to say that playing with the 6-foot, 200-pound Russian was the biggest reason he squeezed a five-year, $21.5-million contract out of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer of 2009.

It was just a few months later that Marc-Andre Bergeron came to the Canadiens with his NHL career hanging by a thread. But even over parts of an injury-riddled season, Markov did his part to boost Bergeron’s power-play production and played a pivotal role in helping him secure the first of two more contracts with the Tampa Bay Lightning thereafter.

P.K. Subban won a Norris Trophy on his way toward an eight-year, $72-million payout, but not without plenty of assistance from ‘The Moneymaker.’

As a young Canadiens fan, Subban idolized Markov. As his teammate and defence partner later on, he quickly understood why Markov was able to help everyone around him.

“What made him great, in my opinion,” Subban texted on Friday, “was his ability to identify what teammates’ strengths and weaknesses were and adapt his game to make things work.”

Markov was well-versed in adaptation.

The Voskresensk native was initially a forward who was selected by the Canadiens in the sixth round of the 1998 Draft. He came over to North America without much fanfare and quickly became one of the highest-profile defenceman in the world. And before all was said and done, he earned status as an NHL all-star, an Olympian, a world champion and a Gagarin Cup winner in the KHL.

In 990 regular season games with Montreal, Markov scored 119 goals and recorded 572 points — more than any Canadiens defenceman in history not named Larry Robinson or Guy Lapointe. And his 60 power play goals place him second among Canadiens defencemen behind only Robinson, who scored just five more but in 212 more games.

Along the way, Markov earned $63,190,853, but in representing himself in his final negotiation with the Canadiens failed to secure the contract that would have seen him realize his dream of playing his 1000th game with the only NHL team he had ever played for.

He earned millions more on a two-year deal with the KHL’s AK Bars Kazan and, after a failed attempt to return to the NHL this past summer, played out the final season of his illustrious career on a one-year deal with the KHL’s Yaroslavl Lokomotiv.

“The General” was an appropriate nickname for Markov. The man was a fierce competitor who battled through lots of adversity — two torn ACLs and a ruptured Achilles’ Tendon — to cement his place as a legend and a well-respected leader.

But I’ll always think of Markov as the guy who helped make his partners that much richer than they ever dreamed of being.

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