Sergei Makarov was 'artistry' on ice -- and a deserving Hall of Famer

Sergei Makarov was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame as part of the four-man 2016 class. Scott Levy/Getty Images

He brought out the pink vodka for the evening. That's the good stuff.

It's 1989 and Tom Watt, along with fellow Calgary Flames coaches Terry Crisp and Doug Risebrough, had survived an adventurous car ride with Russian coach Anatoli Tarasov driving from the team's hotel near the Kremlin in Moscow to Tarasov's dacha, a cottage, just outside of town.

Watt and Tarasov had become close friends over the years, trading North American coaching strategies for Russian ones, and Tarasov had invited Watt and the Flames staff for camaraderie at his place.

On this September day, the vodka is flowing and Tarasov is on a roll. At one point, he pulls out a chalkboard and shares tactics with a Flames coaching staff coming off a Stanley Cup win.

The Flames were in Moscow as part of a training camp tour, and it was there many in the organization got to meet their newest player, right winger Sergei Makarov, for the first time.

At some point at Tarasov's place, the conversation shifts to Makarov.

Details are hazy, in part because of a language barrier, in part because this took place decades ago. And the pink vodka probably didn't help. But at one point, Risebrough remembers Tarasov weighing in on Makarov's place in Russian hockey history.

"He told us that Sergei was the best Russian player ever," Risebrough said. "A coach like that was looking purely at his ability and his ability to deliver."

For years, Makarov delivered at such a high level, he was often referred to as The Russian Wayne Gretzky. He helped the Russians win two World Junior gold medals, in 1977 and 1978. He helped Russia win eight gold medals in the World Championships. And after the crushing loss to the Americans in the 1980 Olympics, Makarov and the Russians won back-to-back Olympic gold medals in Sarajevo and Calgary.

And now, he's getting the recognition he probably deserved years ago, with an induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on Monday. He joins former Philadelphia Flyers star Eric Lindros, coach Pat Quinn and goalie Rogie Vachon in the class of 2016. Makarov, 58, will make the trip to the inductions from Russia, where he's working on alumni hockey projects in Moscow. He also coached Team Russia in the World Legends Hockey League earlier this year.

Is Makarov the best Russian to ever play? That's up for debate, but just being in the conversation puts him in a lofty stratosphere.

"Russians have so many good players," said legendary Hall of Famer defenseman Slava Fetisov over the phone from Russia. "He loved the game more than anybody. His background, where he came from, it showed how much he loved the game. I was so lucky to have a partner like Sergei throughout almost my whole career. I can only say thank you to him, his talent and his leadership."

Around the same time the Flames coaching staff was meeting with Tarasov, the Flames players were getting to know Makarov. Made a 12th-round pick by the Flames in 1983, when Russian players were allowed to play in North America, Calgary was finally getting a chance to bring him to the NHL in 1989, at the age of 31.

During that training camp visit to Moscow, Makarov invited a few of his new teammates, including a young Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk, over to his apartment for a home-cooked meal. The elevator to the penthouse where Makarov stayed was so small, players could only go up two at a time.

Roberts estimates that the penthouse itself had two bedrooms and fewer than 1,000 square feet of living space for Makarov and his small family. One of those rooms was filled with crystal awards, trophies and medals from Makarov's years of hockey successes as a member of the legendary Green Unit with Makarov, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov at forward and Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov on defense.

"I thought to myself, 'This guy is the Wayne Gretzky of Russia, look at where he lives,'" Roberts said. "It was such an eye-opening experience for Nieuwendyk and myself."

It was also a bit of foreshadowing of the cultural differences Makarov would have to overcome when he finally made his NHL debut. Considering what he'd overcome to get this far, it's no surprise it went as well as it did for Makarov in Calgary.

A product of the Red Army, Makarov and his teammates endured 11 months of training that shaped them all into physical specimens. The players would report to their barracks outside of Moscow in July.

"We had a two-story building, a facility for hockey players. Around is a big fence, you couldn't really get out," said Larionov.

They'd alternate running, weight training and on-ice practice sessions that began early in the morning and lasted all day. If a player got home once a week, he was lucky.

What stands out to Larionov and Fetisov years later is that, in the middle of such an intense physical experience, Makarov added workouts. He was up earlier than anyone, playing tennis at 5 a.m.

"For one reason -- to be ahead of everybody," Fetisov said.

If they had a slight break during the day, he was on the grass playing soccer.

"He wants to be the best there, too," Larionov said. "It was in his blood to be the best guy. That's the guy. Get up, doesn't matter what, he wants to be the best. He wants to be on top of every sport. That's what Sergei Makarov was all about."

For long stretches, Makarov absolutely was the best.

His line with Larionov and Krutov -- the famous KLM line -- is one of the best ever formed. Aside from his long list of gold medals, players from his era point to the performance Makarov turned in during the 1987 Canada Cup. Canada came out on top that year, but in a tournament that featured Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux playing together, there were stretches in which Makarov was the best player on the ice.

His goal opened the scoring in Game 3 against Canada, with Gretzky, Lemieux and Paul Coffey on the ice. It was his seventh goal of the tournament.

Former Flame Joel Otto played with Makarov in Calgary, and against him for Team USA in that tournament.

"You get a first-hand view of not being able to touch the puck," Otto said. "He was a great player."

Otto saw that great player up close when he joined the Flames in 1989. The players and coaching staff also got to witness just how demanding he was -- Makarov was an incredible passer, and expected the passes back to him to be just as good.

"He would get frustrated," Crisp said. "He'd give you that look, flip the helmet back and shake his head. How do you explain to him, that 'Hey, everybody doesn't have your skill and can see the ice like you do'?"

Makarov would express his frustration to Roberts.

"He'd say, 'Robs, on stick. On stick. Not on skates,'" Roberts said. "I used to say, 'Hey, Sergei, you're playing with me, you're going to get pucks in the skates. I'm not Larionov or Krutov. I'm just a grinder.'"

There was also a frustration with the style of play. The way the Russian Five skated circles around the ice was much different than the North American style, where teams dumped the puck in and worked to retrieve it.

That style drove Makarov crazy.

"He hated when I dumped the puck in," Roberts said. "Absolutely hated it. He'd look at me like, 'You go get it if you dump it in.'"

But Roberts leaves no doubt. He and his young Flames teammates were better players because of their time with Makarov. Roberts scored 53 goals in 1991-92, and said that 39 of them came from Makarov assists.

Makarov won the Calder Trophy at the age of 31 with the Flames, scoring 24 goals and registering 86 points. His dominance would later lead the NHL to setting an age limit of 25 on rookies of the year.

He was so strong on the puck that his teammates noticed black tape marks all over his jersey from when he pulled away from the hooking that was so prevalent in the game then. When he took his jersey off in the dressing room, his torso was scraped and scratched from opposing sticks.

"He wasn't going down," Otto said.

At the age of 35, he scored 30 goals for the San Jose Sharks after reuniting on a line with Larionov. His presence on that Sharks team convinced Larionov to play in San Jose, and those 1993-94 Sharks went on to upset the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs -- a breakthrough for the young franchise.

In all, Makarov would score 134 goals and 384 points in 424 NHL games during the twilight of his career.

That time served only as a tease of what could have been had the world been different and allowed for him to play in the NHL in his prime -- especially if he could have done it with the unique Russian style designed by Tarasov.

Nonetheless, his impact on the sport is indisputable.

"To me, when you play this kind of hockey for a long time, it's like Picasso. You're an artist, doing a masterpiece," Larionov said. "That's what it was like to play with this guy. You create something on the fly. Makarov was artistry. To play with him was amazing. Just amazing."