The 1989-90 Calgary Flames had a ridiculous amount of young talent. Joe Nieuwendyk, 23, coming off back-to-back 51-goal seasons. Theoren Fleury, 21, who scored 31 that season en route to his own 51-goal year in 1990-91. Doug Gilmour, Gary Suter and Al MacInnis were in their mid-20s. Ditto Mike Vernon.
But the team’s top rookie was better than all of them, at that point and perhaps overall, if you go by the “Gretzky of Russia” legend. No one could match the 322 goals and 710 points on his résumé, playing in a professional league overseas. Then again, almost no one could match his age, either: At 31 years old, Sergei Makarov – who enters the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday – was both a first-year NHL player and the fourth-oldest player on the team, which is a neat trick.
Such was life for players coming to the NHL from the Soviet Union. Following Alex Mogilny’s brave lead, the flood gates opened for former Red Army players to arrive in the NHL. Slava Fetisov made the jump at 31. So did Vladimir Krutov and Igor Larionov, both 29, and Makarov, all members of the fabled KLM Line.
Makarov had the best debut season of any of the Soviet players and, according to the Professional Hockey Writers Association voters, better than any debut players in the League. His 86 points to lead all rookies garnered him 37 first-place votes to win the Calder Trophy, more than Mike Modano of Minnesota (12), Jeremy Roenick of the Chicago Blackhawks (7) and Rod Brind’Amour of the St. Louis Blues (2).
Makarov earned 64.76 percent of the votes for the Calder. He was also over a decade older than any player who received a first-place vote.
Which was problematic for some in the NHL.
Montreal Canadiens General Manager Serge Savard, Boston Bruins GM Harry Sinden and Minnesota North Stars GM Jack Ferreira petitioned the NHL at the GM’s meetings to change the definition of Russia’s hockey league. The NHL considered it an amateur league. They wanted it defined as a professional league.
NHLPA executive director Alan Eagleson said the Soviet players’ Calder eligibility was “a joke.”
But there were those in the NHL that defended Makarov’s status as the top rookie, and not coincidentally teams that had acquired Russian players. Lou Lamoriello, whose New Jersey Devils signed Fetisov, said, “My stance is they should definitely be eligible this year and it should be looked at for the future.”
Brian Burke, director of hockey operations for the Vancouver Canucks who had Larionov and Krutov on his team, said, “I see the validity of Savard’s argument. I don’t understand why this point wasn’t raised before the season began. It seems like they’re just trying to say to Makarov, ‘You can’t win it.”‘
He did win it, but the NHL ensured a player like him couldn’t win it again. Informally known as “The Makarov Rule,” cut off Calder eligibility at 26 years old as of the Sept. 15 of their rookie season.
An interesting aside: The other main criteria for the award is that “a player cannot have played more than 25 games in any single preceding season nor in six or more games in each of any two preceding seasons in any major professional league.” This was always meant to punish WHA players back in the day. The GMs wanted it used to outlaw players like Makarov from winning the Calder, but the NHL still decided to define the Russian league as an amateur one. The NHL has continued that tradition with the KHL, which allowed Artemi Panarin to win the Calder last season at 24 years old.
Panarin’s win had its detractors, mainly due to Connor McDavid’s point-per-game average combined with him being younger and less experienced than Panarin. The defense of the Blackhawks rookie was, essentially, who cares: As long as he fits the criteria, he had the most complete rookie season.
That would seem to be a quasi-endorsement of squashing “The Makarov Rule” – hey, the best first-year player is the best first-year player, no matter the age advantage or experience level. But there really isn’t an appetite for getting rid of that age restriction, even if Stu Hackel made the case three years ago on SI.com:
The rule is obsolete. Excluding all first year players who are 26 and over is a relic of a time gone by. No one disputes that the NHL is the best league in the world and any first year player who comes from Europe now really must make a step up to succeed, which was not necessarily the case in Makarov’s day.
The NHL and its voters obviously don’t have any urgency or desire to change the rule. The Calder works perfectly now as a launching pad for under-26 players to new levels of stardom first, and then an honor bestowed upon the “best” first-year player.
But Makarov, in 1989-90, was the best rookie. He would hit 30 goals as a “sophomore,” and then hit that total again in 1993-94 with the San Jose Sharks. But his 424 games in the NHL were clearly ones on the downside of his remarkable career. His time in North America was more frustrating than dominating, especially when the puck-possession game the Russians excelled at playing had a back seat to dump-and-chase hockey in the NHL.
“He was very stubborn and had his own ideas on how the game should be played,” said former Flames GM Cliff Fletcher, to Ed Willes. “You never knew what you were going to get from shift to shift, but there were nights he was magical.”
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