Friday, July 12, 2013

Thanks for the memores Ilya Kovalchuk

By Larry Wigge

There are difficult stories we all have to tell you. But ...

This one, about Ilya Kovalchuk is a give-him-a-pat-on-the-back thank you story for all he has done for us.

All the times he has pulled us out of our seats with an exciting play or more than that in Kovalchuk a goal he he scored.

On Thursday afternoon, Kovalchuk shocked us all by announcing he retirement after 11 glorious seasons in the NHL. Kovalchuk had 12 years and $77 million remaining on the 15-year, $100 million contract he signed with New Jersey in September 2010, which was a re-working of the 17-year, $102 million deal he agreed to months earlier that had been voided by the NHL for circumvention of the salary cap.

You remember Jim Brown and Sandy Koufax and Ken Dryden -- all of whom retired at 30 or below. At 30, Kovalchuk stated a desire to return home to Russia.

Ilya, always the sniper, had 417 goals and 399 assists for 816 points in 816 games. After being taken by the Atlanta Thrashers with the first pick in the 2001 NHL Draft, Kovalchuk had 29 goals as a rookie in 2001-02. He scored at least 30 goals in each of the next nine seasons, including six in a row with at least 40 from 2002-03 to 2009-10.

He won the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2003-04 with 41 goals and scored a career-best 52 in 2005-06, when he also totaled a career-best 98 points.

"This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia," Kovalchuk said. "Though I decided to return this past season, Lou Lamoriello was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me.

"The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, and our fans that have been great to me."

The Tyer, Russia, native, left the NHL on a high -- scoring 37 goals and 46 assists in 77 games in 2011-12 on a Devils team that made it to the Stanley Cup Finals but lost to the Los Angeles Kings in six games. His eight goals in the playoffs lead all scorers. 

I remember Kovalchuk telling me about how his father Valery had taught him the value of being fit ... but also being the best.

"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 ..."

The conversations were many over the years -- usually by phone from someplace in North America to Tyer in the Ukraine. Between Ilya and Valery Kovalchuk. They 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. Ilya was selected first overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by Atlanta.

Atlanta GM Don Waddell wasn't the only one who considered Kovalchuk head and shoulders above the rest in that draft. He had to get Kovalchuk away from the interpreter, who was always around. Waddell whisked Kovalchuk in a cab while the interpreter was preoccupied. 

Waddell wanted to know just how English he could comprehend on his own. The trick satisfied the Thrashers to make him their pick in 2001.

Waddell wasn't the only one to like Kovalchuk over Jason Spezza, who had gone into the draft as the favorite to the No. 1.

"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.

Thanks Ilya Kovalchuk for taking us through the ABC of scoring in you 11 short years in the NHL. We wish you the best.

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