Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Kovalchuk Tempts with So Many Offensive Talents

By Larry Wigge

Whenever Ilya Kovalchuk is looking for advice he pauses and ... Russia is calling.

Seems like Valery Kovalchuk and his New Jersey Devils son are always on the same page. Such was case after game three, as the Devils were down 2-1 to the Florida Panthers.

"Hey dad, there's something wrong," said Ilya Kovalchuk. "I don't seem to be producing. I'm not ..."

The 6-3, 230-pound winger had one goal and one assist and just six shots on goal against the Panthers in the first three games.

"Are you shooting the puck like I taught you?" said dear old dad.

Valery heard a stunned silence on the other end of the phone. "Your not talking ..."

That was the gist of the conversation. It was direct and to the point. Father talking to his son and wishing him a happy 29th birthday.

Ilya, the goal scorer, had gotten the message: Shoot.

It the next three game, Kovalchuk put four, six and four more shots on goal -- in Game 6 that resulted in Ilya scoring one of two first-period goals and ... 

As Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac crossed the blue line -- he drew two defenders before slipping a pass across the slot to Travis Zajac, who did not want to make a perfect shot as much as a quick shot. It went in at 5 minutes 39 seconds, lifting the Devils to a 3-2 triumph.

Kovalchuk's split-second decision saved the Devils' season.

"It was a great play by a great player, sucking two defenders in and then making the pass," said Devils first-year coach Peter DeBoer said of Kovalchuk's pass.

Series tied ... and everything was AOK between father and son.

It had been a long time since the Atlanta Thrashers made Ilya Kovalchuk the first pick of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. He scored 50 or more goals twice and added another 40 or more goals four other times in his nearly eight season with the Thrashers before being traded to New Jersey on February 4, 2010.

This past season, he connected for 38 goals and 46 assists a true team player. 

In Game 6, the Devils needed him on the ice for a whopping 26 minutes, 25 seconds ... working for the series-knotting goal by Zajac.

The conversation between Ilya and Valery Kovalchuk began in earning when the youngster was only 3 and he had been on dad's shoulder as they went to the gym. The two would do simple stretching exercises and coordination drills. But Valeri also taught his son the value of a positive mental approach in sports.

"My father never pushed me into one sport. He let me play basketball, soccer and street hockey," Kovalchuk said with a smile while recalling his younger days. "But I'll never forget one day, when I was 5, he got this big smile on his face when I was playing street hockey with my friends. I think he saw that I was pretty good. The next day ... he bought me a pair of skates."

Valery Kovalchuk also showed his son the right way to train and develop as a hockey player.

"The first thing he taught me was how important it was to shoot the puck accurately," Kovalchuk recalled, adding that his dad put up four targets on the side of their house -- one at each corner of what would be a makeshift net. "I would practice for hours and hours. It was always wrist shots and snap shots. No slap shots, because sticks were too expensive ... and I was afraid if I broke one we wouldn't be able to buy new ones.

"I remember my dad coaching me back then. He told me, 'It's better to miss the net than hit the goalie.' He was right. Maybe that's why I can pick the corners so well now."

Kovalchuk's draft stock started rising when he had 11 goals and four assists in six games during the World Under-18 Championship in Finland in 2001. Atlanta GM Don Waddell wasn't the only one who considered Kovalchuk head and shoulders above the rest in that draft.

"All I know is that when you watch him play, there's a buzz in the stands when he's on the ice, when he's got the puck, when he goes around an opponent," former Winnipeg and Chicago GM Mike Smith told me. "It's like when Pavel Bure and Teemu Selanne broke into the NHL. All the eyes were on them, expecting something special to happen. And it usually did.

"The biggest difference in this kind of player is that very few players can score the goals they score or make the plays or moves they make."

A different perspective on Kovalchuk from former Atlanta coach John Anderson.

"I equate it to him playing on a three-level chess board and we're playing checkers," Anderson said. "He thinks the game differently. If you watch Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, they were kind of all over the place too, but they'd show up when the puck was there."

The difference between chess and checker is that the chess board is the game is quick and more mind-boggling -- mind-numbing because Kovalchuk began his career as a shooter and playmaker with youngster Dany Heatley.

The two talk still talk on the phone every couple of weeks. But the 2009 All-Star Game in Montreal would bring back these Gold Dust Twins again.

"I could use a few good passes," Kovalchuk said with a laugh. "What made us so good together was he's such a good passer and I ... I just love to shoot."

"Hey, I love to shoot, too," chided Heatley, when told what Kovalchuk said. "As players, we fed off each other's game. Chemistry is a funny thing. Once we stepped on the ice, we clicked. A big part of that I'm sure is that we both think the game on the edge, looking to be creative, looking to be making a play while on the move."

And that kind of hockey communications needs no language, sometimes just a nod or a gesture.

Kovalchuk and Heatley were matching bookends who played their off wings, They didn't have much of a common vocabulary together, but ...

"There were no Russians on our team, so it was a little awkward for me at first because I didn't understand English at all," Kovalchuk remembered. "We were roommates and Dany was always trying to teach me new words. He cared. He'd work with me on words in our room, when we'd order food at a restaurant, watched TV, he'd point out things we saw out the window on the bus -- and I remember him buying me a book on the ABC's.

"Some of the teammates teased me, but not Dany. He knew how important it was to communicate in this game on and off the ice."

Proving that some thing's still get lost in translation so to speak, Heatley said, "Don't blame me for that one. Some of the guys were passing a children's book display and THEY bought the book for him."

The truth about the ABC's in hockey are that Ilya Kovalchuk can do oh so many things. He can shoot and score and he is definitely an 'A' player.

And he can draw quite a few defenders his way as we found out in Game 6 of the Devils quarterfinal round matchup April 24.

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