Markov leaves stamp on CH blue line


The early numbers of the gifted Andrei Markov were so good, they boggled the mind.


The early numbers of the gifted Andrei Markov were so good, they boggled the mind.

There was brilliance in his number theory and analysis, algebraic continued fractions, limits of integrals, approximation theory and convergence of series. All before his doctoral thesis on the binary quadratic forms with positive determinant.

Of course, this would be the other Andrei Markov, the world-renowned Russian mathematician of a century ago.

Sitting in a quiet Bell Centre dressing room post-practice this week, the namesake of the late Andrei Andreyevich Markov heard of this two-legged calculator and a grin began to work at the corners of his mouth.

"This is the first I have heard of this Markov," the Canadiens all-star defenceman said. "In school, I wasn't great in math, and I wasn't bad.

"But I don't worry about that now. I let my agent do my taxes. He lets me think about hockey."

A few numbers, then, about this Andrei Markov, who speaks softly and carries a very talented stick:

Two plus two plus another 316,132 equals the number of votes he earned in balloting for tomorrow's 56th NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta (6 p.m., CBC, RDS), his first trip to the mid-season festival.

The 29-year-old native of Voskresensk, Russia, a sixth-round 1998 draft choice of then-GM Réjean Houle, outpolled every player in fan voting for the Eastern Conference team except the now-sidelined Sidney Crosby. His popularity earned him a starter's spot on the blue line beside Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, whom he distanced by nearly 45,000 votes.

Markov is the 10th Canadiens defenceman to be named to an all-star team since the conference or North America vs. World format was introduced in 1969. He's only the second to be voted a starter, following last season's election of Sheldon Souray.

"I didn't think of the All-Star Game during the season," Markov said. "I just wanted to concentrate on my game, and on helping our team to be better. I thought: 'If it happens, it's good for me.' I was surprised when I heard my name was just on the ballot."

He has 11 goals and 23 assists through 49 games this season and is on pace to score 18 and 38. Those 56 points would equal his career-best of last year, and his goal total would be five better than his peak output in 2002-03.

Markov's signing last May of a four-year, $23-million contract took him from the rank of the Canadiens' fourth best-paid defenceman to the richest player in club history. The deal figured in the equation that saw Souray pack up after his own career-best season and join the Edmonton Oilers as an unrestricted free agent.

Had Markov waited to test the July 1 waters as a UFA himself, he almost surely would have been offered more elsewhere. But an affection for Montreal and a comfort in this city played largely into his decision-making, and it's very much a mutual love affair for Canadiens fans.

The departure of the quotable, cannon-bladed Souray has sharply focused the spotlight on the more private Markov, the quiet, creative quarterback of the mighty Montreal power play who is used with supreme confidence in every situation by head coach Guy Carbonneau.

On Thursday in New Jersey, he played 28:55, more than any player on either team and his season high for a 60-minute game. He has 12 points in his last 14 games.

Selection to the All-Star Game is a fitting if surprising recognition of Markov's talents - surprising in that he goes on merit alone, not because of an Internet lobby or ballot box-stuffing, and as a member of a team that flies below the radar of many fans.

He and his blue-line brethren will throw no crushing bodychecks in Atlanta, where the rink boards and corners will be mostly a rumour.

The NHL's annual "classic" has long been a no-contact, last-shot-wins orgy of goaltender embarrassment. In the 11 editions since 1993, the last time Montreal played host to the event, games have averaged 17 goals.

"It's more a show for the fans," Markov said. "I'll be able to see my friends there, the Russian guys, and have some fun. I've

only seen the game many, many years ago, when I was playing in Russia. Since I've been in the NHL, I take the break and get away from hockey.

"It's not an easy game for defencemen. You're against the best players in the league and you can't play 100 per cent."

Which is very nearly how Markov has played all 49 Canadiens games this season, without an eye on any personal statistic. He played his 460th regular-season NHL game on Thursday, 57 goals and 183 assists to his name, at plus-21 for his career.

"It's not about my numbers or my plus/minus," he said. "It's about the team and playing better than the season before. I want to grow and improve and learn from every shift and every game.

"Our first half of this season was not bad. Average, I think. We have a young, talented team and we have a good future. I hope the rest of the year, and next season and the one after that, is going to be better and better.

Markov had no control over others' perceptions when he

arrived at training camp, a new contract in his pocket and Souray gone.

"I tried just to think about my game and not the other stuff - the media (attention) and whatever," he said. "Nothing had changed because I'd signed a new contract.

"Of course, I have more responsibility now, and that's why I have to focus more on my own game, to play better and be consistent.

"I never think about leadership. I understand I must show that to my coaches and teammates, but that comes just from being a good hockey player."

It was with joy, and relief, last May that Carbonneau greeted the news of Markov's long-term commitment to the Canadiens.

"Andrei doesn't have the most points or the most blocked shots," the coach said at the time. "But now that he's signed,

I can say he's the type of guy who makes things come together. He makes whoever he plays with better."

Eight months later, Carbonneau is still singing the Russian's praises.

"Andrei has been unbelievable for us this year," the coach said upon Markov's all-star selection. "He arrived at camp with a different attitude, ready to take on more responsibility. He's more talkative and seems a lot more comfortable with the guys. I'm happy for him. He certainly deserves the recognition."

Early this month, on the day the All-Star Game's starting rosters were announced, the NHL sent Markov a red East jersey to pull on for publicity photos. There was no number or nameplate on the back, so like any fan off the street, he's gone to the Canadiens' Bell Centre boutique to have it customized.

As of late this week, he didn't have it back.

"I hope," he said, laughing, "that they give me another one in Atlanta."

They will.

And given the formula that this Andrei Markov has discovered, he's bound to be multiplying his star-splashed jerseys in the seasons to come.

Andrei Markov's career NHL statistics GP G A Pts

00-01 Montreal 63 6 17 23

01-02 Montreal 56 5 19 24

02-03 Montreal 79 13 24 37

03-04 Montreal 69 6 22 28

05-06 Montreal 67 10 36 46

06-07 Montreal 77 6 43 49

07-08 Montreal 49 11 23 34

NHL Totals 460 57 184 241


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