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Canadiens Andrei Markov reflects on journey from Moscow to Montreal

MONTREAL It has been 13 years since Andrei Markov, then 21, sat in a boarding lounge of the Moscow airport, his anxieties growing with each passing moment.

Markov had been drafted by the Canadiens two years earlier, in June 1998, their scouting reports having seen good promise in the defenceman from Voskresensk. He would play two more seasons with Moscow Dynamo in the Russian Elite League, the circuits top-scoring rearguard in 1998-99 and 1999-2000, his club winning the championship the second year.

So now Markov was ready, in a fashion, to make the jump to the National Hockey League, where in time he would become one of the games elite defencemen.

I remember at that time sitting in the airport, about to fly to Montreal, and deep in my mind I was asking myself: What am I doing? he said this week in a pensive, nearly hour-long talk in the Canadiens Brossard dressing room.

Markov had no real idea what awaited him on this side of the Atlantic. He was a unilingual Russian, speaking maybe please and thank-you in English, not a word of French, and he was untested on the smaller sheet of North American ice that featured a much more rugged brand of hockey.

I was thinking: Im now in Russia, I can play for a good team here, weve just won the championship why am I leaving? he recalled.

I asked myself many questions. I was scared a little bit. And then I crossed the line and got on the plane. Maybe the first month was very tough. Everything was different. I didnt speak English or French. But there were Russian guys on the Canadiens and they all helped me a lot, and I met some Russian people in Montreal.

His English came slowly, the Canadiens trying Oleg Petrov, Dainius Zubrus and Andrei Bashkirov as interpreters/tutors. Finally, they bunked Markov on the road with Gino Odjick.

That was an interesting time, Markov said, smiling. Ginos a funny guy. I think at that time he knew more Russian words than I knew English. He was always telling me about his days with Vancouver, playing with (Russian) Pavel Bure. Yeah, a funny guy.

Markov was giving no thoughts then about a lengthy career in the NHL, and certainly none about playing every one of his 738 games until now with the same club.

To be honest with you, no, I remember I wasnt sure Id stay in Montreal for a long time, Markov said. My first goal was just to make a team and try to play in the NHL. When it happened, I was happy. In the years and years since, Montreal has become like my second home. Actually, right now its almost my first home because I spend most of my time here.

He has never paused to wonder how his hockey career might have evolved had he not walked the Moscow jetway and flown to a new life in Montreal.

I dont know, he said. I try not to look back. I try to live right now, day by day and look to the future.

Markov exhaled deeply and looked to the ceiling.

Its a tough question. I dont think about how my life might have been different. I was scared, but at the same time I was excited to try something new. It was a big challenge for me.

Now, Markov is heading into another contract year, his three-year, $17.25-million pact the most recent of five contracts he has signed with Montreal expiring at seasons end.

His last two deals were signed weeks or days before he would become an unrestricted free agent; certainly in 2007, he probably would have earned more on the open market than the $23 million the Canadiens paid him for four seasons.

Entering his 13th NHL season in 2013-14, the 34-year-old two-time all-star and cornerstone of the Canadiens blue line has played with and outlasted dozens of defence partners in Montreal while undergoing two right knee reconstructions to repair his twice-torn anterior cruciate ligament.

The knee surgeries, and an operation to repair a lacerated tendon in his left foot suffered in the first game of the 2009-10 season, would see Markov play only 65 games from 2009-10 through 2011-12.

Fans, casual observers and probably a few in Canadiens management watched his return to action last lockout-abbreviated season with anxiety, dread and perhaps even a little morbid curiosity.

Their concerns were not shared by Markov, who had played 21 games during the lockout with Vityaz Chekhov of Russias Kontinental Hockey League to test-drive his rebuilt knee, then arrived at the Canadiens weeklong training camp last January in his best shape physically and mentally in years.

Markov played all 48 regular-season games and each of the five in the playoffs. It wasnt without its struggles, his game sometimes seeming weary, a little out of sync. It got no easier in the seasons final 10 games, when defence partner Alexei Emelin was shelved with, coincidentally, a torn ACL.

Every time you step on the ice, theres a risk youll be injured, Markov said, speaking with a voice of experience. Theres a Russian expression: If you never take a risk, youre never going to drink champagne.

In my mind, I was pretty sure I had to go to the KHL (during the lockout). I knew I hadnt played in almost two years. I knew it was going to help me. I have friends there, family there, and the KHL is a new league. Maybe I wasnt playing for a top team, but I knew I needed game pace. It helped me a lot, it was something new for me.

When I came back here, I was in good shape and I felt good. I felt strong and healthy, and thats what helped me during the season. Yeah, it wasnt easy, but at the same time, at the end of the season I was happy to have played all those games, in good and bad situations.

Markov has lived plenty of both in his dozen years in Montreal.

Three years ago, we spoke on the eve of the season opener as he continued to rehab his first torn ACL. Markov spoke of having just become a Canadian citizen, and sheepishly of having forgotten the name of then Governor-General Michaëlle Jean on the test.

He remembered his first day on skates in Voskresensk at age 6, standing-still skates, and as soon as I stepped on the ice I grabbed the boards and stayed there the whole time.

He recalled, in vivid detail, his first of now 91 NHL goals, scored against the Flyers on Oct. 19, 2000:

Power play. Against Philadelphia, 5-on-3. Slapshot, a one-timer. Right? I still have the puck.

This week, Markov remembered sitting in Buffalos Marine Midland Arena on June 27, 1998 for the NHL draft, on his first trip to the U.S. He sat in the stands with his agent, Don Meehan, and a handful of the companys Russian-speaking staff, and he waited.

And waited.

I had hoped to go in an early round, said Markov, who finally was chosen by the Canadiens in the sixth round, 162nd overall.

As the draft wore on, he decided to put his time to good use.

I left for the store to buy some presents for my friends, Markov said, shrugging.

But he was back in time to hear his name called, and he recalls going to the Canadiens table where he took a few photos after being presented a Habs jersey.

Markov impressed from his first day at a Canadiens conditioning camp at Verdun in August 2000. He stuck with the team that season, though it wouldnt be until his third season that the club made him a roster player and not an In The System skater in its media guide.

A few games into Markovs 2000-01 rookie year, then-coach Alain Vigneault said: There are times when I see Andrei heading into a dangerous situation and I say to myself: Dont go there. But he doesnt have any sense of danger and Im not sure Id want to change that.

Markov listens to the quote read back to him and he rubs his jaw.

Maybe my game has changed with experience, but I always try to improve, he said. Every year I have some goals for myself, trying to be better than the previous year, trying to reach (personal) goals, but with the team always at the top of my mind.

Its tough to explain. When you step on the ice, you see the game and you can read the plays, but I always try not to do too much, to get over-excited. If I struggle, if Im not where I need to be, I remember my days in Russia, where the coach always said: In those times, go back to basics and your game will come.

It doesnt matter if your season is 82 games or more or less, at one point youre going to be on top of your game and another day youll be below that. Its normal. You cant go through the whole season on the same level. I think its impossible.

Fans pay their money to go watch the game and they want to see their team on top every night. I think thats normal. They expect every night to see their team as the best one on the ice. Believe me, the players step on the ice and try to do their job 100 per cent every night, but sometimes it just doesnt go your way.

This will be a remarkable season in many ways, the Sochi Olympics in Markovs homeland in February and his contract expiring a few months later. He says hell concern himself with both when its time; thinking now about either would only be a distraction from playing his best for the Canadiens.

Better than anyone on this years team, Markov understands what it means to play in the fishbowl of this hockey-obsessed city. And not a day goes by that hes not impressed by the depth of fans passion.

Every time you step on the ice at the Bell Centre is special, Markov said. You can feel all of the crowd behind you, supporting you. Of course, some nights are more special than others. The first game of the season is always special, right? So are all the games against Boston and Toronto.

Markov especially remembers the April 9, 2002 night that then-captain Saku Koivu returned from cancer treatment to play at the Bell Centre against Ottawa, the emotion boiling over when the Canadiens won to lock up a playoff berth for the first time in four seasons.

That was crazy special, he said. People were on their feet for about 10 minutes to cheer for Saku. Youre never going to forget that. It will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Theres virtually nowhere Markov can walk anonymously in Montreal, where hes become part of the hockey landscape. Even if hes not the most outgoing player on the Canadiens, hes flattered by the attention.

At my age, I realize its not going to be forever, he said. I know my career is going to be over in a few years. Ill try to enjoy (the attention) for the rest of my career. If I look back, all these years have gone by so fast. All I do now is take it day by day and just enjoy it.

Every time I step on the ice at the Bell Centre, Im going to feel happy. You want to do your best for your fans. It doesnt happen all the time, but its not because youre not trying.

Off the ice, when youre in the street and people recognize you, you can feel and see how they live and worry about hockey. The game is in their blood, its something special, and Im happy to be here.

Andrei Markov was forever ago the anxious 21-year-old waiting to board a jet in Moscow, setting off into a world of unknown. The life experience on this side of the pond, he says, is more than he ever could have imagined.

You know, he said, if I look back 12 years, Im probably not going to change anything in my life.

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