The ’12 Days of Christmas’ is a classic holiday song first published in its current form in 1908. In a nod to the classic carol, join The Hockey Writers as we count down the 12 Days of Hockeymas. Each day, we will provide you with a piece of hockey history as we eagerly await the start of the 2020-21 NHL season.
After their first two seasons at Cow Palace, the San Jose Sharks were ready to move to their new downtown arena in San Jose. They only won 28 games in their first two seasons combined and were looking to make a dramatic improvement in their new environment. What they managed to do was bring two magnificent Russians to the Bay Area who would play an integral role in the team’s early success.
Igor Larionov was one of the first Russians to play in the NHL. Early in his career in the Soviet Union, he expressed his interest in playing in North America and was even drafted by the Vancouver Canucks. He played three season for the Canucks from 1989-1992, then went to Switzerland to play. The Canucks then placed him on waivers and the Sharks claimed him. Despite this, he may not have come to San Jose had they not acquired his friend and former teammate Sergei Makarov.
Makarov came to the NHL the same year as Larionov, but went to the Calgary Flames. He had instant success scoring 86 points in 80 games, and winning the Calder Trophy in the process. Makarov had already had a 13-year career in Russia in what would become the KHL so it hardly seemed fair that he qualified for rookie of the year honors. The NHL seemed to think so too as he was the impetus for implementing an age limit for the award.
The Russian Way
The two Russians played their own way in San Jose. New coach Kevin Constantine implemented a strict defensive system that allowed the Sharks to keep the games close; they would dump the puck in the offensive zone. Larionov wanted to keep control of the puck and wait for a good scoring opportunity. He knew he had chemistry with Makarov, but they needed a third. A Swedish forward with a Russian sounding last name Johan Garpenlov was the lucky third wheel on that line.
The Makarov-Larionov-Garpenlov line often played with Latvian Sandis Ozolinsh and American Jeff Norton to round out the five-man unit. When those five were out there, led by the magnificent Russians, they created magic. They would not only attempt, but complete passes that no one else on the ice would try. Their style was different from any other Sharks five-some.
The foursome of Makarov, Ozolinsh, Larionov, Garpenlov with Norton finished first, third, fourth, sixth, and eighth on the Sharks in points in 1993-94. They willed the team into the eighth and final playoff spot, their first taste of postseason hockey. The Sharks faced the mighty Detroit Red Wings, but did not back down. Larionov led the way with a 1.3 points-per-game average in the playoffs, his line was nearly unstoppable.
They upstart Sharks knocked off the Red Wings and came within a Game 7 loss from handing the Toronto Maple Leafs the same fate. The lockout shortened 1994-95 season had a similar result; the Sharks knocked off the top-seeded Calgary Flames in the first round but the Red Wings avenged their previous season loss to the Sharks in round two with a 4-0 sweep. Larionov wasn’t quite as dominant this postseason with only nine points in 11 games.
After their first tastes of playoff hockey, the 1995-96 season got off to a rough start. Makarov held out and Larionov didn’t seem like himself without his compatriot. On Oct. 24, 1995, the Sharks traded Larionov to the Red Wings for winger Ray Sheppard. Detroit had seen the magic Larionov could sow and they were working on their own Russian reunion. Larionov joined Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov, and Slava Fetisov. The group became known as the Russian Five.
The Russian Five helped the Red Wings win the 1997 Stanley Cup, and Larionov would win two more Cups with the Red Wings. Sheppard played 51 games for the Sharks and collected 46 points, but since the Sharks missed the playoffs in 1995-96, he was traded to the Florida Panthers for a couple of draft picks who didn’t make a big impact. Makarov played just four more NHL games with the Dallas Stars in 1996 before he left for Switzerland; he played six games there and then retired.
While Larionov and Makarov only played two seasons with the Sharks, they were extremely memorable ones. Not only did they first qualify for the playoffs in 1993-94, they also managed their first playoff series win. They repeated that feat in 1994-95, which was no minor task. They were not a good team outside of a few key plays, in particular the magnificent Russians who played well above the rest.
Fans in San Jose were eager to cheer on their first professional sports franchise and the magnificent Russians gave them something to cheer about. Had they not helped the Sharks taste playoff glory so early in franchise history, their following might not be as strong as it is today. There was a glimpse of the beautiful magic that could be made on the ice, in addition to the brawn and physicality. With Larionov and Makarov, fans in San Jose got to see all the beauty, finesse, and skill that hockey can bring. That left them yearning for more.
Victor Nuño is a physician in private practice in Santa Cruz and an associate professor of osteopathic manipulative medicine at Touro University in California. He is an avid hockey fan ever since the San Jose Sharks joined the NHL in 1991. He plays, watches, and consumes everything related to hockey, but especially the Sharks and AHL affiliate Barracuda. In addition, he is a father to two beautiful young girls and husband to a wonderful wife.