Monday, March 8, 2010

Marc Savard and Hits to the Head

Just as it took a season-ending hit to the knees of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the 2008 season opener to alter NFL rules regarding low hits, could it be the injury of another Boston-area pro athlete that causes the NHL to enact rule changes regarding hits to the head?

On Sunday, Bruins center Marc Savard was on the receiving end of either an elbow or a shoulder, depending on whom you believe, from Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke after Savard had released a shot, leaving himself in a vulnerable position in which he could not protect himself. Savard, who was removed from the Mellon Arena ice on a stretcher, said today that he blacked out for 15 to 20 seconds and the Bruins have diagnosed him with a concussion.

As it happens, NHL general managers are meeting in Florida and the subject of whether or how to change rules regarding hits to the head already sat on the agenda. At a previous meeting in November in Toronto, the general managers were unable to agree on a solution.

Could the timing of Cooke's unpenalized result in a rule change? Eventually, I believe the general managers will begin to look at Savard's injury in the same way that the NFL perceived rule changes it has made to protect quarterbacks and in regards to hits to the head. NHL GMs could debate the minutiae forever -- is the player on the receiving end of the hit at fault for having his head down, etc. -- but in the end I believe it will come down to a business decision.

NHL general managers are, after all, businessmen -- ask any player who has ever negotiated a contract with one -- and the newer strain in vogue in the NHL in terms of hiring GMs is that they tend to be younger or more educated or both. Boston's Peter Chiarelli attended Harvard and worked as an agent. Toronto's Brian Burke and Washington's George McPhee both have law degrees. Pittsburgh's Ray Shero, Minnesota's Chuck Fletcher and Chicago's Stan Bowman, while their fathers were accomplished, if not legendary, old-school hockey figures, also hail from a younger generation who did not come up through the former player route in the way that former old-school Flyers general manager Bob Clarke and ex-Bruins man Harry Sinden did. Dallas' Joe Nieuwendyk played at Cornell. I could go on and on.

Eventually, I believe, the general managers will see that hits to the head are bad for business just as the NFL saw that protecting the knees (and heads, under prior rule changes) of one of its marquee stars like Brady was integral to its business. How many fans wanted to tune in to watch Matt Cassel instead of Brady on a Patriots' schedule that had many nationally televised games on it?

Savard might not be Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, but he's one of the game's elite passers. In the four seasons prior to this one, only San Jose's Joe Thornton totaled more assists than Savard's 269. And his team is in a dogfight to make the playoffs. With 18 games left, Boston sits uncomfortably in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, two points up on the New York Rangers.

The Bruins also happen to be the NHL's lowest-scoring team at 2.31 points per game and Savard is their top offensive player. He is tied for third on the team in points with 33 because he has missed 23 games with two other injuries, a sprained knee and a broken foot. A two-time All-Star who has led Boston in points for the three prior seasons, he has averaged 0.80 points per game this season. That's more than Bruins' points leader Patrice Bergeron's 0.68 per game.

So if you were Chiarelli and Bruins coach Claude Julien -- who called Savard "our best player" after Sunday's game in calling for Cooke to be suspended -- how would you like your post-trade deadline chances to make the playoffs now that Chiarelli decided that the price to pay to add scoring was more than he wanted to pay? If the Bruins don't make it in large part because they can't score, what would owner Jeremy Jacobs think of the niceties of the hits-to-the-head debate as he's missing out on playoff revenue and his team once again yields the local media spotlight to the Celtics' postseason and Red Sox's regular season?

Just as the NHL saw the careers of premier stars like Eric Lindros and Pat LaFontaine diminished because of concussions, it does not need to lose anymore -- or any player for that matter. In the end, the issue involves player safety, which should create an outcry from the NHLPA.

At its essence, a body check's reason for being is to separate the man from the puck. That can still be accomplished without concussive hits to the head.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Who Should Start In Net This Weekend?

Normally, I tend to post when I feel like I have big, meaty issues to weigh in on, but since the Thrashers are hot and interest seems to be on the increase, I think it would be interesting to discuss which goalies the Thrashers should start in their two games this weekend.

They play back-to-back games less than 24 hours apart. That makes it a virtual certainty (especially with so many games remaining in so few days) that Ondrej Pavelec will earn one of the starts. On paper, the more critical game is against Tampa Bay, which trails the Thrashers by three points for the Eastern Conference's final playoff berth and has played one more game. It's one of those "four-point games," in the hockey lingo -- a regulation win by Tampa pulls them within a point of the Thrashers and a regulation win by the Thrashers puts them five points ahead of the Lightning. Five points at this juncture of the season, with what would be 18 games left and three teams over which to climb, is an awfully uphill struggle.

It can be done, but only by going on a hot streak, which the Lightning definitely are not on. In a 2-2 game with Philadelphia in their first game back after the Olympic break, the Lightning surrendered five goals in the third period and got drilled 7-2. Then they lost in regulation 5-4 to Washington last night. (That's 12 goals in two games for those of you counting at home as they prepare for a Thrashers team that has scored 10 in its first two since the break.) Coach Rick Tocchet's bunch has lost five in a row and are 4-6 in their last 10.

Meanwhile, the red hot Carolina Hurricanes, owners of the NHL's third worst record, visit town on Sunday having won seven in a row. Remember: This team played in the Eastern Conference finals last season and suffered through an injury to their starting goalie and top player, Eric Staal, earlier in the season. Now both are back.

The Canes have outscored their opponents 29-12 in those last seven games and haven't scored fewer than three goals in a game and haven't allowed more than three -- which they've done only twice -- in that span. Also, four of those victories have come against the East's third- (Ottawa), fourth- (New Jersey) and fifth-places teams (Buffalo, twice).

So what do you do? Play your de facto No. 1 goalie, Johan Hedberg, who has started nine of the last 12 games, at home on Sunday or in what is, on paper, the more meaningful game -- even if it is on the road? So John Anderson's strategy is either to go for the easier points (Carolina, on paper) or for the more meaningful game.

But if Tampa Bay continues to implode, those strategies could be one in the same: He could start Hedberg tomorrow in Tampa in the hopes of dealing a potential knock-out blow to the Lightning while possibly picking up the easier points -- even though it's on the road and the Lightning have outplayed the Thrashers in the season series so far (The Thrashers are 1-2-2). Then Anderson would be playing with house money when he comes home on Sunday. A regulation loss to Tampa, on the other hand, could make the strategy potentially more high-risk.

That, as they say, is why Anderson gets paid the big bucks.

Looks like Anderson rendered this post moot by saying that Hedberg would start on Saturday and possibly again on Sunday. Regardless, these are the thoughts he must have weighed when making his decision.

* * *

Oh, one other thing: Kari Lehtonen got his first playing time last night with the Dallas Stars, allowing two goals on 16 shots. Apparently, he'll make his first start on Saturday against Pittsburgh. Sort of a sink-or-swim moment, I suppose.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Thrashers and the Ewing (Kovalchuk?) Theory

I never read Bill Simmons's column on, if at all, until I met my friend Joe Rauch back in 2007. Maybe this had something to do with the fact that Joe is a big NBA fan and I've always followed hockey a lot more than I do the NBA, which seems to be Simmons' favorite league to write about. (It also might have something to do with my aversion to Simmons' initial "Boston Sports Guy" persona, seeing as I was a fan of New York sports teams -- owing to my birth in that city and my father's rooting for New York teams -- even while growing up in Massachusetts.)

So it was Joe who first mentioned to me Simmons' "Ewing Theory."Actually, Simmons credits his friend Dave Cirilli with inventing the theory, but I'd say that Simmons is probably a little bit better known. Simply elucidated, the theory states that college and pro superstar Patrick Ewing's teams always played better without him -- a truism for almost all superstar-dominated teams.

I started thinking about how this might apply to the Atlanta Thrashers after they defeated the Florida Panthers 4-2 on Tuesday to go 3-1-2 since trading Ilya Kovalchuk. Could it be that the Thrashers will be better without the best player in franchise history than they were with him?

Remember, it's just a theory, not a law. But the more I started looking at Simmons and Cirilli's theory, the more I found how well it suited the Thrashers. Two crucial elements must be in order for the theory to apply. They are (and I'm excerpting now):
  1. A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
  2. That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) -- and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.
This is the 2009-10 Thrashers in a nutshell. The way Simmons describes the theory, the season doesn't necessarily have to be the following one. His prime example is that of the 1999 NBA Eastern Conference finals when Ewing went down with a torn Achilles tendon in Game 2. The Knicks won three of the next four games to win the series against the Indiana Pacers after the Knicks had been written off. Another example includes the Tennessee Volunteers when they won the 1998 NCAA football title the year after Peyton Manning graduated without ever having done so.

The central point of the Ewing Theory is that when teams have a superstar, the rest of the players tend to stand by passively as bystanders waiting for said superstar to do his thing. I first started thinking about this in relation to the Thrashers when I wrote a story for last week about the state of the team coming out of the Olympic break.

Forward Jim Slater, who played on the same teams as Kovalchuk for five seasons, said of Kovalchuk, "Maybe we relied too much" on him. Goalie Johan Hedberg agreed. Coach John Anderson basically did also.

In some ways, it's a case study on different methods of how to build a team. Shortly after the Thrashers traded Dany Heatley in 2005, a player said to me, "Now they just need to get rid of the other guy" -- the other guy, obviously, being Kovalchuk. A philosophical debate ensued about whether it's easier to win with a team built around superstars or one built, in this player's words, with a team of all $2 million players, a salary about 33 percent above the NHL average at the time.

At times when I have searched my mind to find successful examples of the mythical team of $2 million players, I end up settling on the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes who won the Stanley Cup -- lots of above average players who meshed together flawlessly. Of course, the team of $2 million players is an impossibility -- an ideal, really -- that would necessarily have to have some exceptions to exist in the real world. For the '06 'Canes, Eric Staal, one of the NHL's top forwards, and Rod Brind'Amour would represent two of those exceptions. But a look back at the team's defense would hardly reveal greatness. Bret Hedican was the 'Canes' No. 1 that year. Aging Glen Wesley, Frantisek Kaberle, Anton Babchuk, Niclas Wallin, Aaron Ward hardly represent as a collective anything near the backline of the great Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s.

That Carolina team rolled four lines and got contributions from everywhere. In their very brief run of success thus far without Kovalchuk, the Thrashers are doing the same. Defensemen like Pavel Kubina are scoring. Two forward lines are scoring (Evander Kane-Slater-Colby Armstrong, which was why Armstrong was not traded at the deadline; and Bryan Little-Nik Antropov-Niclas Bergfors), as is the power play.

If the Thrashers can maintain this level of play, they will have a better than average chance to make the playoffs. They hold three games in hand on seventh-place Montreal, which they trail by two points; and stand one point behind the New York Rangers, who are tied for eighth with Boston, while holding two games in hand on the Rangers.

The Thrashers also have a favorable schedule with 13 of their remaining 21 games at home. They are getting solid goaltending from Hedberg and, for the first time in their history, the strength of the team is its defense.

If they make it, another chapter could be written in the history of the Ewing Theory. Maybe hockey fans will come to call it "The Kovalchuk Theory."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Idea of Thrashers' Move Is Laughable

Once again a vaporous rumor has emerged from Canada that the Atlanta Thrashers are imminently about to move. Ten months ago the supposed destination was Hamilton. This time ot is the frosted plains of Manitoba and poor jilted Winnipeg.

Personally, I thought the Winnipeg Free Press did a pretty good job of how it handled this story. It addressed every single wild rumor, practically down to, "My dog was at the park and heard that..." and then basically shot them all down. Like so many of these reports, this one was unsourced, leaving one to wonder where these come from all of the time. Is it as simple these days as starting a campaign on Twitter? That was about as strong of a source as the Free Press cited.

Nonetheless, the story seemed to whip up the locals into a frenzy, including the city's Mayor Sam Katz who told the paper, "I can tell you when you hear from as many sources I've heard from, there's a good possibility." So the mayor's source, apparently, also was the grapevine. Just a more high-falutin' grapevine. What a surprise -- a politician telling his constituents something that they wanted to hear. Never mind that a spokesman for the group reputed to be the buyer of the Thrashers stated that "it's completely false."

As Winnipeg has a successful AHL franchise, one rumor involved that franchise moving with a junior hockey franchise from Saskatoon taking its place. Both the junior team's owner and the Western Hockey League's commissioner shot that one down.

So, basically, we have a baseless rumor. These ceaseless rumors appear to be fed by a variety of factors, namely Canadians' insatiable appetite for a seventh franchise. With good reason, Canadian hockey fans are upset by the migration of franchises in Quebec and Winnipeg to the United States. One of those, the Colorado Avalanche, became a model for economic and on-ice success while the other became the poster child for quite the opposite. It would be as if the St. Louis Cardinals and the Baltimore Orioles moved to Canada and one played in front of sold-out crowds and won multiple championships while the other played in front of half-empty stadiums in a city that showed no interest -- selling hamburgers to vegetarians as, Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber has put it.

The second factor for these rumors is that many question the economic viability of franchises in nontraditional U.S. markets that have had difficulty in winning and, as a result, drawing crowds. (Ownership problems in Nashville, Tampa Bay and Phoenix have fueled this way of thinking.)

Let me state why Atlanta -- even with an ownership group that has been mired in litigation for eyars -- is different and why, in my opinion, really, I see it as a set of facts, as to why the Thrashers are going nowhere.

Fact No. 1

This under-reported fact basically makes it impossible for the Thrashers to move: On May 10 of last year Thrashers general manager Don Waddell, seemingly out of a desire to put this to rest this issue forever, shed some light on a legal agreement that the NHL and the Atlanta Spirit ownership had previously not publicized. Waddell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (I cannot link to some of these stories because the AJC's archives require a paid subscription) that naming rights to Philips Arena require the presence of both an NHL and NBA franchise. That agreement will pay $9.3 million for nine more years. So there's a paltry 84 million reasons why the Thrashers won't move.

Secondly, Waddell also stated that when the team's current owners, known as Atlanta Spirit, agreed to buy the team in 2003 they signed a binding commitment with the NHL to keep the team in Atlanta for a certain number of years. He would not reveal how many but said the number was "multiple." Of course, I'm sure the lack of specificity could fuel the conspiracy theories, but Waddell, so tired of addressing the issue, said, "I've been through this so many times, but the truth is there are too many obstacles."

Fact No. 2

The NHL wants Atlanta. For those from the Great White North who have never been to Atlanta, the city is far different from Raleigh and Nashville and Ft. Lauderdale and even, to some degree, Phoenix and Tampa.

Atlanta is the eighth largest television market in the United States. Atlanta has 2.3875 million television households, as defined by Nielsen. And the market continues to grow. In 2009, it trailed Boston, the seventh largest television market, by 40,000 TV households. In 2010, it trailed The Hub of Hockey, as Kevin Dupont has christened it, by 33,000. So, it's foreseeable that Atlanta will overtake Boston in a few years. With a population in the metropolitan area of between 4.5 and 5 million (depending how far out of the urban core you go), Atlanta would be the second largest city in Canada.

As a result, the NHL wants and needs a market of this size. Look at the lengths to which the NHL has gone to keep teams in the 12th (Phoenix), 23rd (Pittsburgh) and 26th (Nashville) largest markets. What comes with a market of Atlanta's size are corporations that have enormous amounts of sponsorship dollars to spend. Thirteen Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in Georgia -- most of them in Atlanta with a few others within 100 miles -- including Home Depot (revenues of $71 billion in 2008), Coca-Cola ($31.9 billion) Delta Air Lines ($22.7 billion), UPS ($51.5 billion) and SunTrust Banks ($12.8 billion). Last June, another Fortune 500, NCR, announced it was moving its headquarters to suburban Atlanta. In late 2007, Invesco announced it was moving its corporate headquarters from London to Atlanta.

This is the type of place the NHL knows it has to be. Here's how NHL commissioner Gary Bettman put it to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jeff Schultz earlier this month:

“We think it’s very important [for the league] and we believe that whatever issues the franchise has, they can be overcome, and ultimately the franchise can be successful. We have a strong track record of addressing franchise problems and not abandoning cities. Look at Phoenix. I don’t think you need to go much farther down the road than that. But look at Buffalo, Ottawa, Pittsburgh. All three have had problems at some point, but they’ve all been successful.

“When the ownership situation is resolved, we believe the franchise will be able to move forward. We’re committed to the market. Our track record indicates we do everything we can do to avoid relocation.”

Fact No. 3

The NHLPA wants to be in Atlanta. Shortly before the NHL All-Star Game came to Atlanta two years ago, I interviewed then-NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly and we discussed his views on the viability of nontraditional markets. Remember, the NHL salary cap is a function of all 30 teams' revenues, so among the chief jobs of the PA's executive director is to help grow revenues so player salaries will grow commensurately.

Here is the quote in that story from Kelly, a Bostonian, that I always hark back to: "It's obviously vitally important that there be a franchise in Atlanta. I do [believe] more so than others because it's obviously one of the major boom markets of the United States. It's one of the major TV markets.

"Do we need two franchises in Florida? Maybe not ... Do we need another franchise somewhere in Las Vegas? Maybe again, that's a crapshoot as to how a franchise would do in Las Vegas."

Now, that was two years ago and Kelly is no longer running the union. Will his successor espouse the same view? It's hard to say. But the logic -- the population and the dollars -- is hard to dispute.

I'm sure that misinformed Canadian publications will continue to throw out the Thrashers' name when another Canadian city or prospective ownership group announces that it wants to -- surprise, surprise -- return an NHL team to its rightful place. And it's true that the Thrashers' attendance has been down -- Waddell admitted as much when he traded Ilya Kovalchuk recently -- but that is a function of winning as much as anything.

The Thrashers have shown an ability to draw when they provides excitement: They did in their inaugural season and they did in 2005-06 when they narrowly missed the playoffs, with Philips operating at 84 percent of capacity, and again in 2006-07, its lone playoff appearance (88 percent capacity).

As's Scott Burnside, a transplanted Canadian who is now a metro Atlanta resident, has written and observed: Buffalo was thought to be a bad market until the Sabres turned things around post-lockout and became one of the NHL's hottest tickets in 2006-07. The same is true of Washington.

Atlanta is no different.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Kovalchuk's Most Memorable Moments

As it appears that Ilya Kovalchuk's remarkable tenure with the Atlanta Thrashers is about to end in the coming days, I thought I would write about the 10 moments that were the most memorable to me. This is not a "best goals" list. If you're looking for that, here's a pretty good one on YouTube.

I've been in Atlanta for Kovalchuk's entire career and, in one capacity or another -- back-up writer, beat writer, free-lancer for The Sporting News and -- I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the mercurial Russian's career. As captain of the Thrashers, the soon-to-be 27-year-old winger has widely been credited throughout the league with refraining from the shenanigans that earned him a reputation early in his career for being a hot-head and a showman. There was the time when he threw a broken stick into the stands in frustration in 2005 after no penalty was called for what he thought was a slash and he received a one-game suspension and the time when he was late to a morning skate in New Jersey after he missed the team bus and coach Bob Hartley held him out of the game. Kovalchuk blamed the cab driver for getting lost. One of my favorite lines about Kovalchuk was written by Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber, winner of the distinguished Elmer Ferguson Award, "
The question is, Which will be more entertaining: watching Kovalchuk score 50 goals or watching him celebrate 50 times?"

Kovalchuk doesn't quite celebrate like that much any more, but I remember coming back from a road trip in 2006 and bringing with me a copy of The Washington Post that showed a photo of him leaping into the boards after celebrating a goal just to remind myself how exciting it could be to watch him play at times. You'll see times like that reflected on this list as much as the talent that should make him one of the great all-time goal-scorers in NHL history.

No. 10: Benched Before the All-Star Game

Kovalchuk was voted a starter for the Eastern Conference for the 2004 All-Star Game in St. Paul and in the Thrashers' last game before the break he committed a typical turnover with 5:31 into the second period that turned a 1-0 Thrashers' lead into a 5-1 loss against Philadelphia. Kovalchuk was trying to stick-handle through three Flyers and beat his friend, defenseman Danii Markov. Markov stole the puck and turned it into an assist as the Flyers pulled away. Hartley benched Kovalchuk for the rest of the game for the mistake.

I had the night off, but was supposed to interview Kovalchuk for the All-Star story after the game. When I had to come to interview at the morning skate that day, he told me he couldn't talk because he had to take teammate Ivan Majesky to the DMV. I had to wait almost an hour after the game before he calmed down and appeared.

No. 9: The Big Stage,
March 12, 2006

Making a furious bid to overcome a bad start and make the playoffs for the first time in team history, the Thrashers won some amazing games down the stretch in the spring of 2006. One of those came at Madison Square Garden -- a venue in which Kovalchuk almost always shines. The Thrashers trailed 2-0 with less than 13 minutes to go in regulation but earned a 3-2 overtime victory thanks to Kovalchuk's tying goal with less than five minutes left. The Rangers scored the first goal in that game because of a defensive lapse by Kovalchuk.

The left wing had been in Hartley's doghouse for a variety of reasons and when I approached him after the game, he gave me a gruff, "You want to talk to me now?" But here's what he said later of playing on the big stage: "It's New York City. I think everybody likes games here, but my favorite place is still A-T-L. When you play in front of your crowd, there is five times more emotions, and you draw energy from them."

No. 8: Four-Goal Game, Nov. 11, 2005

With huge expectations after signing Bobby Holik, Peter Bondra, trading for Marian Hossa and Greg de Vries, adding Scott Mellanby and Jaroslav Modry, the Thrashers got off to a dreadful start in 2005-06 after the lockout. Kovalchuk missed the first three games because of a contract dispute and got off to a bit of a slow start. But on Nov. 11, he broke out with a four-goal game at Philips Arena against the Lightning in a 5-2 win that jump-started both himself and the team towards a better showing.

No. 7: 50 Goals, April 6, 2006

With six games to go in '05-'06, the Thrashers were still in the playoff hunt but their chances were growing more desperate. They trailed at Tampa Bay when Kovalchuk netted his 50th goal with four seconds left in regulation on a bizarre bouncing shot past Sean Burke. The Thrashers lost in a shootout, missing out on a valuable point against their Southeast Division rivals who eventually beat them out for one of the East's two final playoff spots. The Thrashers missed the playoffs by two points that season, getting eliminated in their second-to-last game of the season.

No. 6: Playing in Russia During the Lockout

Probably the warmest greeting I ever received from Kovalchuk was passing him in the halls of the dingy arena in Kazan, where Kovalchuk played during the NHL lockout in 2004-05. Traveling to the Republic of Tatarstan in winter was a long way for an American reporter to go and I think he appreciated it. Unlike in the NHL where the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHLPA states that players can only spend three hours -- on-ice or off it -- of practice at a team's practice facility, Soviet-era coaches in what was then known as Russia's Super League (today it goes by the moniker KHL or Continental Hockey League) will keep their players practicing all day. When I saw Kovalchuk, he was finishing up a basketball game that was part of the players' training regimen. Unlike older players who came through the Soviet system, Kovalchuk bristled under such methods. Here are some memorable quotes from that story:

"We're like prisoners here. Everyone knows everything around [here]. You go to some bar or restaurant and the bill directly goes to [Kazan's general] manager."

On losing a game to the former team of his coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov in which Kovalchuk committed a costly penalty: "
After the game yesterday, I was enemy number one. I'm on the black list right now. The coach was dressed all black like something happened. His face is like we lost eight in a row and we're out of the playoffs."

Also, without a CBA, coaches could fine players whatever they liked. Coach Bil, as they called him, fined one player half a month's salary for having two beers on a charter flight. If the same happened to him, Kovalchuk said, "
I'd be gone."

No. 5 Illegal Stick Saga

The curve on Kovalchuk's sticks blatantly broke the rules back for his first few seasons and back in 2005-06 opposing teams started to call for measurements in the hopes of catching him in the act to earn a power play. He narrowly escaped in a game against Nashville, as he threw the stick in question to the bench and assistant equipment manager Joey Guilmet ran it down the hallway to the team's locker room. When the officials compelled Guilmet to bring back the stick, he produced one that was legal and, Nashville said, had not been used.

But a few weeks later on Jan. 31 in a 5-2 loss to Buffalo, he was caught red-handed and Hartley was furious. To send Kovalchuk a message, he had him practice on the third line with Serge Aubin and Jim Slater. Kovalchuk was the first one off the ice and bolted the practice facility. Later, reached by phone, he claimed all was fine.

Said his friend Slava Kozlov, "
I think he's upset. I like when Kovy's upset. He got benched a few years ago in New Jersey [the day he missed the cab to the morning skate], and the next game he scored two goals. He's going to recover quick. We're going to support him because he's part of our team."

No. 4.: Oilers are 'Morons,' Dec. 8, 2002

Despite playing a continent and a conference apart, the Thrashers and Edmonton Oilers had created a bit of a rivalry in the early '00s -- thanks, in part, again to Kovalchuk getting caught by the Oilers for using an illegal stick in Feb. 2002. Mike Comrie was the offending player who made the accusation and when the Oil visited Atlanta in December 2002, tempers flared.

Kovalchuk fought Comrie and received a two-minute unsportsmanlike penalty in the process for pulling Comrie's hair. But he saved his best for coach Craig MacTavish and the Oilers after the game. With the help of translator Pavel Strizhevsky, a Russian emigre who lived in Atlanta and free-lanced at the time for Russia Sport-Express, Kovalchuk said:

"[MacTavish] was the last one in the NHL to play without the helmet, so he probably had the last brains knocked out a long time ago."

And: "[The Oilers] were screaming at me the whole game. They were morons. They way they play is ridiculous."

No. 3: Pointing at Crosby, Jan. 6, 2006

It was the kind of move that was sure to rile the hockey gods, not to mention Don Cherry. In the rookie year of Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, Kovalchuk wanted to show who was boss. Crosby was sent to the box for slashing Kovalchuk and 24 seconds later, Kovalchuk scored on one of his trademark one-timers. Earlier in the game they exchanged slashes and big hits. He then pointed at Crosby in the penalty box for the entire Philips Arena crowd to see. This YouTube video has gotten more than 350,000 views.

After the game, Kovalchuk offered this up: "He took those stupid penalties all the time and he's an 18-year-old kid and he can't play like this. He started yapping at his teammates."

The next night Atlanta went to Pittsburgh, where Kovalchuk was lustily booed, and won again.

No. 2: NHL All-Star Game, Jan. 27, 2008

Again demonstrating his love of the big stage, Kovalchuk put on a show for his hometown fans at Philips Arena -- though not by scoring. The Eastern Conference won the game 8-7 and Kovalchuk had two golden opportunities. Western team goalie and Russian countryman Evgeni Nabokov robbed Kovalchuk from close range with a glove save in the second period after which Kovalchuk fell on his back in mock incredulity. A few minutes later, Nabokov robbed him again on a breakaway and, again playing to the crowd, threw his stick in feigned disgust. Kovalchuk had 18 family members and friends in the stands, including his sister who made the trip from Russia. He said the experience was "unbelievable."

No. 1: Grady Hospital, Oct. 5, 2003

Almost all of the moments on this list were in public. But the one that sticks at the most for me was a private one. Thrasher Dan Snyder had of toxic shock at Grady Memorial Hospital, as a result of an infection that had entered his body from wounds suffered in a horrific car crash with Dany Heatley six days earlier. Word had gotten out among the team members and they began to gather at the hospital.

Snyder's mother LuAnn recalled seeing a very young-looking Kovalchuk weeping and not recognizing him at first. To try and console him, she said, she offered him a piece of the watch that her son was wearing at the time of the accident. The watch had been severed in several pieces by the violence of the crash. LuAnn Snyder recalled her conversation with Kovalchuk as follows: "It's going to be a hard year. You have to work hard and you have to be a leader. You have to work hard and you have to be a leader. You don't have to play for Dan, but be there for him. He said, 'Yes, I will do this and I will try. I promise.' "

Kovalchuk tied for the NHL-lead in goals that season with 41. Before the Thrashers visited the rink this past October that was built in Snyder's hometown of Elmira, Ontario, and named in Snyder's honor, Kovalchuk had this to say, "I think it's important, because Dan, he was a member of our team. He's still a member of our team. He's always going to be with us. When his name is there, it means we're there, too. For us, it's going to be a big deal to see the fans, to see the rink."

Monday, February 1, 2010

WrestleMania Comes to Atlanta

Six months ago I was sitting in Papadeaux's in Norcross having lunch with Atlanta Falcons vice president of marketing Jim Smith when he mentioned that he was working with the folks at the Georgia World Congress Center/Georgia Dome and Atlanta Sports Council to help bring WrestleMania to Atlanta.

As the dome's major tenant, the Falcons at times help to bring other events to the facility. In the same lunch, Smith mentioned that he had also assisted in helping to bring two high-profile soccer events to the dome that summer, an exhibition between clubs AC Milan and Club America and another between the Mexican and Venezuelan national teams. As the former general manager of Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew, he knew the futbol product he was trying to sell.

It turns out that he also knew a little something about the WWE. About 15 years ago, Smith, a Connecticut native, worked for the Greenwich, Conn.-based company for parts of two years as director of live marketing, where, as he put it, he promoted shows all around the country.

Successfully landing the bid for WrestleMania for the first time in Atlanta represented the confluence of a number of relationships and events. At Monday's press conference at the Georgia Dome to announce the event, Atlanta Sports Council President Gary Stokan said he knew WWE Senior Vice President of Special Events John Saboor from Saboor's days as president of Central Florida Sports Commission -- essentially, Stokan's counterpart in Orlando. Stokan said Saboor gave him the heads-up to bid on the event and the sports council pulled in all the necessary players.

That dynamic was on display on Monday. It's not often that you see political dignitaries like Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Commissioner of Economic Development Ken Stewart standing side by side with the likes of WWE Chairman Vince McMahon and "Superstars" -- as the WWE refers to them -- John Cena, Big Show, Batista and Edge.

But they all played their parts -- wrestlers and politicians. Stokan credited Reed, from his time as a state senator, for helping to change the Georgia state flag and remove the Confederate War Emblem. Stokan noted that Atlanta would lose high-profile events like the NCAA Final Four men's basketball tournament if the state flag still bore the emblem. (The NCAA has a ban on holding events in states that fly the symbol, which has hurt South Carolina, Georgia's neighbor to the north.) He said he and Saboor negotiated the terms of the deal on the back of a napkin at Dantanna's and that the Atlanta team made a strong pitch at WWE headquarters in Connecticut.

"I think the Falcons, as [team president Rich McKay] said during the press conference, we want to be a part of the major events here in Atlanta," the Falcons' Smith said. "This is a major event and one we wanted to be a part of. It’s being played here and we think we can a bring a lot to the table to add to the excitement and the WrestleMania week, not just the event."

Smith, a marketer himself, praised the WWE's marketing skills. Perhaps Cena put it best when he referred to McMahon, who built the now publicly traded company with a market capitalization of $1.19 billion, as "an insane genius."

"When you listen to the press conference, they live this," Smith said. "This is their life. They don’t do anything else and they love it. You can see it in every interview and every discussion that it wasn’t staged. That’s a real passion for what they’re doing. That’s why they’re so successful.”

Stokan said sports events have brought $1.8 billion in economic development to Georgia since 1999, resulting in $73 million in direct government revenue (read: taxes). For his part, Reed said the event would bring $50 million in economic impact to Atlanta and said he planned on attending.

Then McMahon and the wrestlers took turns hyping the event. Edge described WrestleMania as "a shot of adrenaline directly to your heart."Batista described it as a "vibe -- electricity."

McKay, escorted out by WWE divas Eve and Kelly Kelly, quipped that a schedule conflict prevented Falcons Owner Arthur Blank from attending the event and that "thank God he wasn't able to make it." On a serious side, he noted how the event would help to give back to the community through WWE's relationship with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

So, as Reed put it, get ready for a 13-month march to Atlanta when WrestleMania arrives on April 3, 2011.

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Note: The lunch I described with Smith was the beginning of a process that resulted in my becoming a paid free-lance reporter/blogger for for the 2009 NFL season.