Locked-out, healthy Andrei Markov would entertain a KHL offer in a heartbeat. “I’m not going to just stay here and waste my time, you know?” he says.
Len Redkoles, NHLI via Getty Images
The Gazette and Hockey Inside/Out’s Dave Stubbs sat alone for a half-hour on Friday with Canadiens defenceman Andrei Markov to discuss the two-time all-star’s fitness, his legendary right knee, his playing plans for the lockout, his critics, Habs fans – and even the drought-ending goal he scored in the Tournée des joueurs charity event last Thursday in Châteauguay. That was Markov’s first goal in an organized game in almost 23 months, and he laughed about that one.
Stubbs’s two stories from his visit with Markov are below.
First, the feature column, an in-depth look at the Russian rearguard. And then the companion sidebar on how Markov was rebuilt in the gym since late last December, bringing him to the “very good place,” in the words of his trainer, Scott Livingston, that he is today.
Canadiens’ Andrei Markov in action against the Capitals in Washington last March 31.
Mitchell Layton, NHLI via Getty Images
“I was lucky,” Canadiens defenceman Andrei Markov was saying through a grin a few days ago. “I was in front of the net and the puck came to me.”
The goal Markov scored last Thursday ended a personal scoring drought of almost 23 months and no, he never considered keeping the puck as a souvenir.
“Nothing special,” he joked.
We spoke for a half-hour in the empty lobby of a Candiac arena last Friday morning, Markov slipping from intense to light-hearted and back in quick, effortless dekes. He was in blue longjohns, soon to practice with teammates and a few fellow NHLers, and as we talked he fidgeted with his BlackBerry, its blinking red light signalling a message or more.
Markov had potted his Thursday goal in Châteauguay in the first game of the Tournée des joueurs, the evolving charity event organized by Philadelphia Flyers’ Max Talbot and Bruno Gervais for a group of locked-out NHL players.
The Russian’s last goal in any kind of organized game had come Nov. 9, 2010 at the Bell Centre, the winner against the Vancouver Canucks. Three games later, he was sidelined with his second torn anterior cruciate ligament in less than seven months.
Markov finally returned to the Canadiens lineup last March 10, having missed 133 regular-season games and all seven in the 2011 playoffs. The 33-year-old played 13 of the Habs’ final 14 games last season, trained ferociously through the summer and now, fitter and better conditioned than he’s been in three years, he is locked out, chipping in with other players to rent ice in community barns like Candiac.
As the labour dispute drags into its third week, no end in sight, Markov is ready at a moment’s notice to return to Russia should a suitable offer come from the Kontinental Hockey League.
“It’s a possibility,” he admitted. “I just want to play. To lose another season would be my third. I don’t want to do that. If I’m going to have options over there, I’ll look at them.
“Actually, I’m looking forward to playing there. Why not? It’s like a new league. There are good players there.”
Markov said he’s “not looking aggressively,” but a new agent representing him in Russia is keeping a sharp eye out.
“If it’s a good (offer), I’d look forward to it,” he said, having played for Dynamo Moscow during the 2004-05 lockout. “It won’t be easy. The (KHL) teams didn’t know there’d be a lockout and their rosters are already packed. They’d have to open a space for another player. But if someone is interested in me, I’m always open and always available.”
Markov says there is no date circled on his calendar for such a move. But he’s not prepared to tread water indefinitely.
“It could happen any day,” he said of an offer. “I’m ready to leave tonight or tomorrow if it’s an interesting offer. I’m not going to just stay here and waste my time, you know? I want to play and enjoy the game.
“I hope (the NHL and NHLPA) sign an agreement today and we start camp tomorrow. But I realize it’s a business. It’s not my job. I don’t think anybody knows when it’s going to be over.”
It’s no wonder that Markov is eager to play, having seen action in just 73 of the Canadiens’ 272 regular-season and playoff games since the start of the 2009-10 season.
In order, he’s been sidelined by a lacerated tendon in his left foot, slashed by goalie Carey Price’s skate in the first game of the 2009-10 season; a brief, unspecified lower-body injury two games before the 2010 Olympic break; a torn right ACL that required surgical reconstruction; a second tear of the same ACL seven games after his return; and finally 11 months ago, an arthroscopic clean-up of the joint.
Along the way he’s become a Canadian citizen, also keeping his Russian passport, and 15 months ago he signed a three-year, $17.75-million contract, eight days before he’d have become an unrestricted free agent.
To the criticism of many, Markov returned for 13 of the Canadiens’ final 14 games last season, the Habs by then eliminated from the playoffs and facing opponents that were battling hard for playoff seeding.
Clearly, his timing was off and there was rust he still hadn’t scraped off by season’s end.
“I don’t want to talk about those kinds of people,” Markov said of those who second-guessed his decision to play. “They know nothing about hockey. You have to know the person and what’s inside that person.
“I hadn’t played for almost two years. I knew I needed to play, if even with just 14 games left, and even if I wasn’t 100 per cent. I was happy to play my 13 games. They helped me a lot. They showed me the things I had to work on during the summer. And it was important finally to have some fun, to be with the guys on the ice, to feel the game and the support of the fans.”
After a summer of gruelling training, his program directed by renowned certified athletic therapist Scott Livingston, Markov is raring to go – with nowhere to go, for the time being.
Shortly before the lockout was announced, he sat in the Brossard office of Michel Therrien, under whom he played in 2000-02 during the coach’s first tour of Habs duty, and renewed acquaintances.
“Michel told me what he wants to see in the team and he asked me how I feel about the team,” Markov said. “It was a good conversation, nothing too specific, and I’m looking forward to working with him.
“We’re on the same page. We’ll see.”
No doubt, Markov will continue to confound many who will stand before him with a microphone or notebook, questions sometimes yielding sharp-tongued replies or uncomfortably long silences punctuated by icy stares.
Some suggest he’s the most misunderstood player on the club, though at least one player says he’s far from the world’s best teammate.
“I try to be honest with people, that’s all,” Markov said, shrugging. “If you’re thinking something, why not say it? But you must be smart when you do.”
He guards his personal life jealously – he won’t even discuss a new tattoo, suggesting it’s his business alone – but admits that, unlike many players, he’ll occasionally read the papers and the Internet.
“Sometimes it’s funny to read the comments from the writers and fans,” he said. “Sometimes they hate you, sometimes they like you. It’s fun. Even from that, you can learn something.
“I remember many years ago, someone told me, ‘It’s easy for you, earning your salary, playing a couple times a week.’ My answer was, ‘I’ve been playing hockey since I was 6 years old. Why didn’t you start what you’re doing when you were 6?’
“Sometimes, people don’t understand what we go through. It’s not easy, but it’s fun. That’s our life.”
The lockout is just one more obstacle on Markov’s road back to the game he loves. What he’s missed most, he says, is everything.
“It starts in the morning when you wake up on a game day,” he said. “The morning skate, lunch, your nap, preparation before the game, the warmup, seeing the fans. The routine is special. You can’t replace that with anything else.
“I enjoy every time I step on the ice at the Bell Centre. Our fans know and understand the game. They cheer for us and sometimes they hate us, but I know they always support us.”
After three surreal seasons – the last two an endless nightmare – and after forever-long days in the clinic and rehab, Markov is finally ready to once more play in robust health.
Can he again be a thoroughly dominant defenceman? Even he doesn’t have the answer for that.
“I have lived through many difficult situations,” Markov said, his thumb now twitching on his phone, a message or more still unheard. “Right now, I try not to think about the past. I try to stay positive and focus on the things I must.
“This hasn’t been just about hockey, it’s been about life. You can be on top one day and so much down the next. But the people close to me have supported me 100 per cent.
“I’m looking ahead day by day, because I never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Hopefully soon, any day, any time, something is going to happen. And I want to be ready when it does.”
Andrei Markov defends the Canadiens net in front of goaltender Carey Price in Vancouver last March 10 in his return to action following his second ACL surgery.
Rich Lam, NHLI via Getty Images
How Andrei Markov was rebuilt, inside and out
His 13-game 2011-12 NHL season complete last April 7, Canadiens defenceman Andrei Markov set himself one very simple goal for the summer:
“To become stronger and healthier,” Markov said during a talk last Friday in Candiac.
Markov’s season began with a bold prediction from Pierre Gauthier, then his general manager, served up at the team’s mid-September golf tournament in Laval.
Gauthier suggested that Markov, on Dec. 8, 2010 having undergone his second major right-knee ACL reconstruction in seven months, would be ready for the start of the 2011-12 season.
The prediction missed the mark by a bit. Three months later, a year after the second ACL rebuild, Markov had to undergo an arthroscopic procedure to clean up debris in the joint, Gauthier then saying that Markov “absolutely” would play before season’s end.
That forecast proved accurate, the 33-year-old defenceman returning to action in Vancouver last March 10, his first of 13 games he would play by season’s end.
For months, Markov had been working with the Canadiens medical and athletic therapy staff, slowly rounding into form. But late last December, he arrived for additional treatment on the St. Henri studio doorstep of Scott Livingston, a certified athletic therapist and the Canadiens’ former strength and conditioning co-ordinator.
From that moment onward, Livingston performed what he called the “back-end rehab program” for Markov, then accepted the defenceman’s request to train him through the summer.
The offseason work involved a reconditioning and conditioning program and lung-torching cardio that included intense PowerWatts cycling sessions with a dynamic group of elite amateur and professional athletes, including skiers, hockey players and Olympic diver Alex Despatie.
“Basically,” Markov said, “I found the right person who helped me a lot and put me back in shape.”
Livingston has an excellent working relationship with Habs head athletic therapist Graham Rynbend and his team and he’ll not get in the way of the club’s work once the lockout ends.
But he will be available to Markov, if requested, having produced what appears to be a new and vastly improved defenceman.
“Andrei looks to be in great shape, and he is,” Livingston said. “A lot of the reason why his ACL tore twice was because there was a lot of stuff above his knee that needed to get cleaned up – his hip and back, etc. We had a chance to fix all that so I think he feels good where is right now.”
If Markov largely credits Livingston for his excellent strength and conditioning, the trainer says it’s the player who deserves the praise.
“People need to know that Andrei has worked very hard the last eight, nine months to get himself where he is right now,” he said. “I’ll give the guy total credit. He’s come in and done everything I’ve asked him to do and more, all the time. He’s a good man and he’s put his full effort into being where he needs to be.
“I really would have liked to see how things would go for him right out of the gate. He’s in a really good place,” said Livingston, like everyone unhappy with the lockout.
“Cardiovascularly and strength-wise, he’s very, very strong. I think he feels better on the ice than he has for a long time, which is really nice for him. He has a smile on his face a lot, which is nice because the past few years have been pretty difficult for him.
“People don’t understand Andrei that much but he’s a very proud man and I don’t think he’s very happy with how things have gone physically for him the past few seasons. He’s not happy that he’s not been able to do what he wants to do.”
Markov says he got back on skates a little more than a month ago, having focused in Livingston’s gym on rebuilding his body’s alignment, strength and cardiovascular capacity.
Had the Canadiens training camp opened as scheduled on Sept. 21 with medicals and testing, Livingston believes that Markov would have been “right up there” with the fittest players.
Most important to the two-time all-star, however, is the idea of finally getting a chance to play again with a strong body that’s brimming with confidence.
“I was ready to start camp,” Markov said of the suspended period of preseason training. “There, you have three weeks to improve and get stronger and play (exhibition) games, which are better than one practice after another.
“I can’t say I was 100 per cent at the end of last season. But right now, I don’t want to look back. I feel strong and ready to play and that was my goal going into the summer.”