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 NHL.com -- 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."