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man of year for Canadiens; Looking back on 2013, defenceman is a key
chapter in lockout-shortened season and the current campaign
21.12.2013. Stubbs, Dave. The Gazette
Itext-messaged best wishes to Andrei Markov last Dec. 20, the locked-out Canadiens defenceman celebrating his 34th birthday in Cherepovets, Russia.
He replied with a few syllables of thanks - this was Andrei Markov, after all - then he played 21:01 that night for Vityaz Chekhov in a 1-0 losing effort against Severstal Cherepovets in a Kontinental Hockey League game.
(The match was played for a crowd of 2,800 - roughly the number of media who cover a Canadiens practice.) I wished Markov well once more Friday as he turned 35 and again, this time from Nashville, came thanks in reply.
The NHL lockout seems forever ago when you cover hockey for a living. If fans and businesses missed the game terribly while it was away - a half-season sacrificed for who knows what reason - I found myself probably busier than ever during the work stoppage.
With no game-day routine during the league's September-through-January shutdown, I spent many hours interviewing/chasing players in Brossard, Candiac and by phone throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Markov was in Music City on Friday, a long way from the Russian steeltown where he was lacing his skates a year ago to the day. On Thursday, he had played 26:27 in the Canadiens' 5-1 loss to St. Louis.
Upon reflection in the final days of 2013, it occurs to me that Markov is the most prominent thread running through much of this writer's past 12 months.
From our conversations while he was playing 21 games in the KHL, to his reporting in robust health to training camp in mid-January, to our talks in Montreal and his large media sessions that I've watched from the fringes of the scrums, Markov has been and continues to be a key chapter in this year's Canadiens story.
The native of Voskresensk, Russia had played just one season-opener for the Habs in the past three seasons, having undergone two right-knee reconstructions; heading into lockout-abbreviated 2012-13, he had skated in only 73 of his NHL club's 272 games since
It was early in training camp on Jan. 18, on the eve of the Canadiens' season opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs, when I corralled Markov on his way from the dressing room to the Bell Centre parking garage.
"You can't be completely healthy, you know," he joked about mention of his nauseatingly good fitness. "I'm getting old!" So old that Markov, who has now played every one of the Canadiens' last 90 games, was the NHL's ninth-busiest defenceman through games of Thursday, averaging 25:33 per game. P.K. Subban, Markov's usual blue-line partner, was ranked 15th, 30 seconds back.
Markov's vision of the game is unparalleled, his feeds finding teammates through passing lanes that seemingly don't exist. If time has taken half a step from him, he makes up for it with an experience that rarely finds him out of position, an important quality when Subban goes on a rush.
It's been a treat watching Markov and a challenge, at times, decoding his insights into the game, the veteran one of the memorable athletes I've covered during the past year.
I've immensely enjoyed every talk with Max Pacioretty, at the rink but especially away from it. I've never known an athlete who takes their profession more to heart, many of our talks cutting past the X's and O's to discuss the game's underbelly and how the ebb and flow of hockey affects his life.
If discussions in confidence with Pacioretty haven't been fodder for columns, they have shed important light on his personality that helps to background my work writing about him and his teammates, all of them human beings before they're athletes. I'd include centreman Lars Eller among both my highs and lows of 2013.
Eller and I spoke at length in early January as he was returning from his lockout base, JYP Jyvaskyla Oy in Finland's 14-team SM-Liiga, and we talked often during the 48-game NHL season.
Then came the first game of the Eastern Conference quarter-final at the Bell Centre and the horrifying openice check by Ottawa's Eric Gryba that sent Eller off the ice on a stretcher and to the Montreal General Hospital.
Eller missed the Canadiens' final four games of the season, but was in the dressing room as the club packed up for the off-season, speaking of his resolve to return in the fall stronger and more focused than ever.
Through 37 games, the 24-year-old has stepped up his physical game to new levels, his 63 hits leading the team while his 33 blocked shots are tops among forwards.
Eller's 53.6 per cent faceoff percentage leads the club's regular centremen, his best work arguably done when on the so-called Kid Line with Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher.
A quiet hotel-lobby talk in Calgary with Marc Bergevin a week into the season was intriguing for the Habs GM's emotional, raw and very human take on concussions, framed around that of George Parros, and the role some athletes play - as Bergevin did during his two-decade NHL career - to defend teammates.
"I fought for my teammates most of the time. I always looked at the guys who couldn't defend themselves," Bergevin told me.
"I fought for Pavol Demitra, who I played with for five years in St. Louis."
On Sept. 7, 2011, Demitra perished with the KHL's entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl club when its plane crashed in flames shortly after takeoff.
"This is the first thing I thought when Pavol's plane crashed," Bergevin said, tears welling in his eyes. "I remember fighting for him and that day, I couldn't. I couldn't fight for him. I couldn't help him and he died."
Months later, during a visit of nearly an hour in his Bell Centre office, goaltending coach Stephane Waite offered a revealing look into the mind and playbook of a twotime Stanley Cup champion whose job in Montreal is to take franchise netminder Carey Price to the next level.
But on Friday, as I thought about the past year, it was Markov who stood out the most.
The defenceman is a unique talent viewed from seven storeys above Bell Centre ice; up close, before and after the drop of the puck, he's a unique personality.
"One game at a time," Markov told me on the eve of the season opener, eager to get going.
"It's time to enjoy hockey. I'm going to play hard and have fun."
He has certainly been doing that, thus writing one of the fascinating stories in a Canadiens dressing room that's had no shortage of them the past year and promises many more as we turn the corner into 2014.