So I wrote this for another blog where I was previously employed over a year ago when Kovy left the NHL. Since he officially retired from pro hockey today, last leading EHC Visp to the second tier ‘ship in the Swiss National B League, I figured I’d pay one of the greatest shows on ice his due yet again.
It was the first period of a December 1993 game at The world’s most famous arena, 7th ave and 33rd New York City, home of a fan base desperate for Lord Stanley to grace them with his presence for the first time in over half a century, when a highly gifted young man just shy of his 21st birthday took another long shift. He hailed from the other side of the pond (Togliatti, Russia to be exact, long ways away from Brighton Beach) and barely had a grasp on this land’s native tongue but had a keen understanding of the international language: hockey. Or so he thought. For on this night as he glided on the hallowed Madison Square Garden ice about midway through the opening frame, blissfully unaware that his efforts and young legs were robbing ice time from a grizzled veteran, former NHL all star and assistant team captain Steve Larmer. The exuberant Alexei Kovalev finally came to the Rangers’ bench for a change. To his surprise, head coach “Iron Mike” Keenan instructed the winger to remain on the ice.
Keenan, long known to be a dictator of sorts (to put it mildly) in command of his team, had grown tired of the european sophomore’s penchant for overextending his allotment of time on ice. Initially however, Kovalev was overjoyed to be, as he assumed “rewarded” with extra playing time. He was but a young man with superlative skill that warranted General Manager Neil Smith to use the 15th overall pick in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft to make a piece of history: Kovalev was the highest selected Russian player to date and the first to hear his name called by a big league club in the first round. Blueshift Faithful would often be dazzled and awed by Alex’s dangles and sometimes speed, yet also bemoan him for not playing to his ability at all times.
As the infamous shift dragged on, Kovalev would continue to come to the bench for a change, yet Keenan had instructed his troops to block his attempts from climbing over the boards and would only switch out 2 forwards to compliment Alex on the ice. It was becoming apparent that this was the crescendo of weeks of upon weeks which saw the young Russian’s shifts extend beyond a standard 45 seconds in the wake of burgeoning frustration by his mates. A tough love statement from a coach with championship aspirations on a veteran-laden club. An exercise akin to that of your old-school father forcing a whole pack of cigarettes down your throat when he found your pack of Marlboros.
This excursion of a shift was capped off when a visibly exhausted Kovalev ended it in his own fashion of carrying the puck through 5 opponents for a dazzling highlight goal.
As such was Alex Kovalev. Often regarded as an enigma wrapped in a mystery, he was one whom was misunderstood as often as perhaps he misunderstood the philosophy of dump-and-chase. Two things were evident though right to the end of his NHL career, which officially came to a close as a member of the Florida Panthers last week; he had more skill than any of his peers and he truly loved to play the game.
Perhaps he truly was so great that he found the best professional league on the planet to bore him, as he “only” finished his illustrious career with 430 goals and 599 assists for 1029 points in 1316 games.
To compare, the recently anointed Hall of Famer and fellow Russian countryman and superstar Pavel Bure finished with 437/342/779 in just 702 games played.
That 1993-’94 campaign saw Kovalev endure multiple suspensions for undisciplined infractions and his coach publicly suggest he be traded. What instead ensued was a quick maturation and level of production that was vital to the New York Rangers success in hoisting their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. Down the stretch in that regular season he netted an additional 15 goals to finish with 23 goals and 56 points, and in the playoffs finished 3rd on the team in scoring. As amazing as that was on a squad compiled of battle tested and proven veterans, it was his defensive play that caught the admiration of many observers in that tournament.
He would later go on to Pittsburgh in a deal for Petr Nedved where he would enjoy his finest offensive season in 2000-’01 finding the back of the net 44 times and scoring 95 points playing alongside Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux, and serve further stints in Montreal and Ottawa (as well as second tours of duty in New York and the ‘burgh) before attempting his latest endeavor with the Panthers.
And so the curtain closes on perhaps the most under appreciated NHL career of any player we have seen. We are lucky to have witnessed such magnificent brilliance for 19 seasons in North America on the world’s largest stage. It has been reported that Alex may yet continue to display his talents across Europe in professional barns next season which should be of no surprise. As anyone in attendance on that December night in 1993 can attest, Mr. Kovalev simply loves to be on the ice.