The Russian invasion of the NHL is now complete. In June, Ilya Kovalchuk, called “the most exciting prospect since Eric Lindros,” was the NHL’s first pick in the league’s entry draft, leading the Russia media to dub the 18-year-old Muscovite “Ilya the First.” Prior to Kovalchuk’s draft, the highest draft position for a Russian player was No. 2, when, in 1992, the Ottawa Senators picked the now legendary Alexei Yashin.
The Atlanta Thrashers had first pick in the draft and, after toying with the idea of trading the pick away to Buffalo, they decided to hold it and select Kovalchuk. As Izvestia hockey observer Alexei Demin wrote, “despite the variety of choices he had, Atlanta General Manager Don Wedell in fact had no choice.”
“I understand that Atlanta is a very young team, but I will do my utmost to help it get much better, much stronger,” Kovalchuk said at a press-conference after his selection.
Kovalchuk started his hockey career in Tver, on a farm team for Dinamo (Moscow). After a year, he moved to Spartak (Moscow), which was soon to make a tour of the US and thus was looking for a few more forwards. Kovalchuk is an aggressive, competitive player and he almost bolted from Spartak when the team was demoted from the Primary Super League in Russia to the Upper League. But Kovalchuk decided that Spartak’s focus on offensive play was more important and he opted to stay with the team. During the 1999-2000 season, he spent most of his time with Spartak’s junior team and scored 70 goals -- twice as many as the next best scorer in the League. In July 2000, he was drafted (as the #10 pick in the CHL draft) by the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. But Kovalchuk had his sights set for the NHL and said he had no intention of playing in the minor leagues in North America.
In 1999, Kovalchuk traveled to the Canada Challenge Cup for under 17 teams. He stole the show, scoring 14 points in only six games. So stunning was his performance that, for the first time in the history of international hockey, the Cup organizers requested that he donate his stick for the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. In the Five Nations Tournament in 2000, Kovalchuk was named the Best Forward, scoring 6 points. At the 2001 World Juniors Championships, he scored 6 points in seven games.
Kovalchuk seems to remind sports observers of no one so much as Pavel Bure. He has an explosive skating style, incredible maneuverability through heavy traffic, and superb puck handling skills. But he also has a reputation for a short fuse: this season he leads Spartak with 78 penalty minutes. Kovalchuk explained in an interview with Sport-Express that he is an emotional person and sometimes his emotions “get the better of him.” Plus, he said, “other teams have their young players too … When they begin to beat up on our veterans, we have to get out there and help them out.”
At press time most observers agreed that, much to the chagrin of Spartak fans, Kovalchuk would likely accept a lucrative offer from Atlanta (the team entertained him in Ted Turner’s box at Atlanta Brave stadium in advance of the draft). His skill level and his athleticism (he is 6’2” and weighs 205 pounds) would make him a real draw for the young team.
Yet, other experts have cautioned that Kovalchuk should go slow and not be jaded by the glow of sudden stardom. For his part, Kovalchuk seems focused on finishing up his work at Spartak. In a recent interview he expressed confidence that Spartak would get promoted back into the Super League. He said he “doesn’t even want to think” of a different result.
So, as the NHL season nears, hockey fans will watch and wait to see which way Kovalchuk leans. Sooner or later, he will end up in the NHL, as have all great players before him. The only question is if he goes now, while his star is on the rise, or if he waits a bit longer to try to bid his price higher, honing his skills for another season at Spartak and banking on a sterling performance at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. As Kovalchuk once said when discussing his career prospects, “I do not want to jinx myself.”
In any case, his stick is already in the Hall of Fame.
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