Remembering: The “OV-Line”

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From left to right, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, and Johan Garpenlov combined for one magical season in San Jose to lead the Sharks on an improbable run.

In the game today, when hockey fans think of “OV” everyone immediately envisions the great number-8 of the Washington Capitals, Alexander Ovechkin. But long before Ovechkin lit up the rinks of the NHL, the “OV” nickname was applied to a trio of three star players for the San Jose Sharks who were combined together for one magical season. Two were wizard-like Soviet legends who had been linemates for over a decade together in Communist Russia; arguably they were the two best hockey players in the world who were not in the NHL for many, many years. The third was a Swede, nearly 10-years younger than the Russians, who found opportunity to be a top-line winger after coming to the Sharks via trade from the Detroit Red Wings. The last names of this trio all happened to end in the letters “ov”. Their style of play possessed an entirely high-speed, puck-on-a-string, weaving-in-and-out, European flavor to it. And for the 1993-94 NHL season, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov and Johan Garpenlov would combine to lead the San Jose Sharks on a playoff run for the ages, and still one of the most exciting sagas in San Jose Sharks’ history.

The San Jose Sharks were an NHL expansion team that first saw action during the 1991-92 season. Their first two years in the NHL were abysmal, going 17-58-5 in their inaugural season, followed by a second season in which they registered a mere 11-wins while going 11-71-2 in a bitterly long 84-game season. Yes, expansion had not been kind to the Sharks. And after two years with one of the worst records in NHL history, finding success in a third season would have been inconceivable to practically all hockey minds. The “OV-line” was about to show otherwise.

The first to arrive in San Jose was Johan Garpenlov, who came over via trade with the Detroit Red Wings in March of 1992 in exchange for original Shark, Bob McGill. Garpenlov had been a 5th-round 1986 draft pick of Detroit’s who had had a decent solo season with the Red Wings the year prior when he rattled off 18-goals and 22-assists; his only full season with Detroit. After the trade, Garpenlov found immediate success in San Jose, quickly becoming the team’s top winger. Garpenlov would finish up 1991-92 with 11-points (5-goals, 6-assists) in 12-games with the Sharks, and then followed up with a 66-point campaign (22-goals, 44-assists) in 1992-93, finishing second overall in Sharks team scoring. Garpenlov would merely need the right linemates to further accentuate his production. The Russians were coming.

Johan Garpenlov Sharks
Johan Garpenlov was the first member of The “OV-Line” to arrive in San Jose coming over via trade with Detroit in 1992.

Igor Larionov would be claimed off of waivers by the San Jose Sharks in October 1992 from the Vancouver Canucks, but would not arrive in San Jose until late in 1993 after choosing to play a season in Switzerland to avoid losing a portion of his salary to the governing sports body, Sovintersport, in his homeland, who had allowed their Soviet players like Larionov to finally play in the NHL. Sergei Makarov, the 1989-90 Calder Trophy winning Rookie of the Year, came to the Sharks in August 1993 in a trade with the Hartford Whalers as part of compensation that saw the Sharks trade their 1st-round 1993 draft choice to the Whalers which had landed them Chris Pronger. Once Makarov arrived in San Jose, it was easy for Larionov to join his former linemate with the Sharks and return to the NHL from Switzerland.

Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov are two of the greatest hockey players in the history of the game. They represent two-thirds of the famous Soviet “KLM-Line” that led the Soviet Union to what seemed like endless international championships. Before either player arrived in the NHL, Larionov and Makarov won Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988, as well as numerous medals in the World Championships, including bronze in 1985, silver in 1987, and gold medals in 1982, 1983, 1986 and 1989.

Larionov was known as the “Russian-Gretzky”, and if you ever saw him play, it was easy to see why. Larionov would win three Stanley Cups during his NHL career, while having registered 204-goals and 230-assists for 434-points in only 457-games with the Soviet Union, to go along with his 169-goals and 475-assists for 644-points in 921-NHL games. Larionov would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008, and is currently a member of the Hall’s selection committee.

Igor Larionov Sharks
Igor Larionov, a 2008 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame, was known as the “Russian Gretzky” before he had even played a game in the NHL.

Sergei Makarov was the sniper of the two Soviet-born players, and did he ever put up numbers! In 519-games for the Soviet Union’s CSKA Moscow team and Traktor Chelyabinsk, Makarov scored 322-goals and 388-assists for an uncanny 710-points. During the 1980-81 season with CSKA Moscow, Makarov scored 42-goals in 49-games and added 37-assists for 79-points. Coming to the NHL as a 31-year old rookie, Makarov was named Rookie of the Year, which led to an age limit being added to the trophy. In addition to the international medals that Makarov won as a teammate with Larionov, Makarov also won Olympic silver in 1980, and World Championship gold in 1978, 1979, 1981, and 1990, as well as another bronze in 1991. It is unfathomable to me that Sergei Makarov has not yet been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame himself.

Even though they were 35 and 32 years old respectively for the 1993-94 Sharks’ season, when you look at what Makarov and Larionov had accomplished all those years prior, it should be no wonder that they still had some magic left in their tanks. Combining both Russians with Garpenlov, the San Jose Sharks suddenly had one of the best first lines in the NHL. With the “OV-Line” lighting up the goal lamps, the Sharks jumped to a 59-point improvement from their horrendous 11-win 1992-93 season. And garnering a record of 33-35-16, the Sharks finished third in the Pacific Division behind the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks, and earned their first playoff birth in only their third year of existence.

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The 1989-90 NHL Rookie of the Year, Sergei Makarov led the 1993-94 San Jose Sharks in scoring with 30-goals and 68-points.

The “OV-Line’s” regular season numbers were certainly impressive. At 35-years of age, Sergei Makarov led the San Jose Sharks in team scoring with 30-goals and 38-assists for 68-points in 80-games. In only 60-games played, Larionov who would turn 33 in March of that season, finished fourth overall in team scoring with 56-points (18-goals, 38-assist), averaging nearly a point per game. Garpenlov would finish in sixth place by registering 18-goals and 35-assists for 53-points. While those are all pretty good scoring numbers, it would not be until the playoffs that the “OV-Line” would be at their finest.

The opening round of the 1993-94 playoffs would feature a match up between the 82-point Sharks and the 100-point Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings had the all-time greatest hockey coach, Scotty Bowman at their helm, and were fueled by the likes Sergei Fedorov (56-goals, 120-points), Ray Sheppard (52-goals, 93-points), Steve Yzerman (28-goals, 82-points in only 58-games) and Paul Coffey (63-assists, 77-points). Not to mention that the Red Wings had seven other players on their roster who hit double digits for goal scoring. The vast majority thought that the rocket-powered Red Wings would make short work of the upstart Sharks. The total opposite would happen.

The Sharks would take the Red Wings through the complete 7-game series. The “OV-Line” would combine for 21-points as a unit in 7-games. Larionov led the way with 10-points (2-goals, 8-assists), while Makarov blasted away 6-goals in the series to total all of his points for the opening round, and Garpenlov would tally 2-goals and 3-assists. The “OV-Line” put the Red Wings “to bed”, completely stunning Detroit who were poised to make a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup that season. No one would have surmised an outcome such as that. The Red Wings actually outscored the Sharks in the series, registering 27 markers while San Jose put up 21. The difference seeming to be the Sharks tenacity and relentless play, especially led by the worldly experienced Makarov and Larionov.

As they moved into the second round of the playoffs, the San Jose Sharks seemed unstoppable. Next they would scare the living daylights out of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And while the Leafs would win the series, it would take another 7-games to stifle the Sharks, and Toronto would escape amongst the narrowest of margins, needing a 3-2 overtime victory in Game Six to come from behind in the series, and then a hard fought 4-2 victory in Game Seven to finally be rid of San Jose; the Sharks having at one point been ahead in the series 3-games to 2. The “OV-Line” would continue to score in abundance in the second round against Toronto. Larionov would lead the way again with 8-points in 7-games (3-goals, 5-assists), while Garpenlov would tally another 5-points (2-goals, 3-assists) and Makarov would be kept to 4-points (2-goals, 2-assists). While Larionov and Garpenlov would score with some regularity, the difference in the series may have been the Maple Leafs shutting down the goal scoring of Sergei Makarov. Although Makarov registered 2-goals and 2-assists, all four of those points came in Game Five of the series, while the Leafs kept Sergei off the board for the other six games. Regardless of the second round loss, the San Jose Sharks did their damage against the Leafs. Meeting the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals, Toronto was gassed from their seven game battle with the Sharks and would fall to Vancouver in 5-games.

All in all, the “OV-Line” tallied an astounding 38-points as a line in 14-playoff games. Though they did not make it past the second round of the playoffs, Sergei Makarov still finished 10th place overall in playoff goal scoring for the 1994 playoffs, while Igor Larionov would finish tied for 7th place in playoff assists and 9th for points. In fact, through his first two rounds of the playoffs, Larionov would tally the same amount of points (18) as eventual playoff scoring leader and playoff MVP, Brian Leetch, would have through his own first two rounds.

Sadly, the “OV-Line” would be very short lived. Though San Jose’s playoff success would be repeated the following season in 1994-95, the line would be broken up permanently after a March 1995 trade saw Johan Garpenlov sent to the Florida Panthers. 1994-95 would be Sergei Makarov’s last season in San Jose, becoming an assistant coach for the Russian national team for 1995-96. Igor Larionov would have many more superb seasons in the NHL, playing until the age of 43 and winning Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002.

Though they played together for only one full season, the “OV-Line” should not be forgotten. They brought excitement, history and winning ways to a brand new franchise in a non-traditional hockey market. They were pure fun to watch; plain and simple. And they demonstrated one of those enjoyable rarities in sports; the aged underdogs rising up and defeating the heavily favored powerhouses. Makar-OV, Larion-OV, and Garpenl-OV – they were truly a line for the ages.