Last week, Alexei Kovalev signed a contract with Atlant Mytischi in the KHL, where he will join Nikolai Zherdev next season. After not getting any firm offers in the NHL that were to his liking, Kovalev is coming back to Russia for the first time since he played in his home country since the lockout year.
"Two teams in the NHL offered me to join them. But I chose Russia," Kovalev told Pavel Lysenkov of Sovetsky Sport. "I didn't want to spend my summers sitting on travel bags. I realized that I will not get a contract longer than one year in North America. Atlant gave me a two year contract."
Kovalev arrived in Russia today and joined his new team in the suburbs of Moscow. During his interview, Kovalev candidly discussed the hockey media, saying Ottawa journalists "don't watch hockey at all. When they fly with the team and go through the [metal detector] at an airport, their bags are filled with beer."
He also said: "In two seasons I still couldn't understand the ideas of our coach Cory Clouston" with the Senators.
Here are some other things Kovalev told Lysenkov (an excerpt, translated):
Q. You have a reputation that Kovalev may be excellent in one game, and the next game you cannot see him.
KOVALEV: "One journalist wrote it when I was still playing in New York, and then it all started. There are such reporters, who don't watch hockey, don't understand it — but they will still say that Kovalev doesn't give his all. That he plays whenever he wants. They are short on their own opinion."
In the spring of last year you tore your ACL. Did it get in the way of having a good start to the season in Ottawa?
"I came back two months early. I didn't want to miss games. I felt good. But at first I had a hard time getting in game shape. This is physiology — injuries like that aren't easily healed. There is a fear of overloading the leg. Especially because it was my second ACL tear."
I asked Sergei Gonchar what game model Ottawa had. The defenseman could only throw his hands up.
"In two seasons I still couldn't understand the ideas of our coach Cory Clouston. It seemed that he scoffed at some players."
What do you mean?
"You have to treat players kindly. If you leave someone on the bench you should explain why it happened. This is coach's job. But when a player is benched and doesn't understand what is happening, he becomes lost."
You were then traded to the Penguins, where Malkin and Crosby didn't play due to injuries. Why didn't it work out there?
"Everything was fine. I had played for Pittsburgh before. The atmosphere doesn't change there. But my style didn't fit with the game coach Dan Byslma was implementing. There is nothing else to explain it with."
What do you remember from your years in the NHL?
"A lot has happened — there were falls and rises… Sometimes you sit down and play back your career in your head. In principle, I am happy.
"And the fact I am criticized… There are different journalists. My opinion of Ottawa journalists is that they don't watch hockey at all. When they fly with the team and go through the [metal detector] at an airport, their bags are filled with beer. You realize right away what these people do when they write about the NHL.
"Let them make up nonsense about me. But I am happy with what I have done. I have played not for myself but for the team and fans. Teammates have never said a bad word about me. Fans are happy. I am approached on the street in Montreal, New York and told one thing: 'Don't take the bad to your head. We always support and love you. You're the best.'
"Words like that warm your soul."
I can see that you are fed up with Canadian media.
"I am annoyed when people write [nonsense]. Figuratively speaking, to earn half a hundred dollars they are ready to make up some garbage. But they show that they're doing their job."
I understand that you don't read any sports media…
"Only sometimes. If you're interested in an athlete. Or you know the journalist who wrote something and who you trust. And it Ottawa they liked to channel their anger on hockey players. Regardless of how you played, they will certainly dump dirt on you and the team."
Are you concerned about Evgeni Nabokov's story? The star goalie came to SKA signing a four year contract. But his career in the KHL didn't turn out well.
"I didn't go into details of what happened with Nabokov."
The move from America to Russia is not always easy.
"That's the whole point. I don't agree with those who say 'He was a cool guy in America, that's why he will now beat everyone in the KHL wearing just one skate.' When you have played almost your entire career on small rinks, it's not that easy to move to the big ice. The game is absolutely different in Russia, a different mentality.
"Some get used to it quickly. It takes others a lot of time. Maybe Nabokov didn't have any options last summer. He had to go to Russia. And it didn't go [well]…
"I think Nabokov made the right decision when he terminated his contract. There's no need to suffer, destroy your career and let your team down. If a person sees that nothing is working out, it's better to leave."
Before leaving for the KHL Kovalev left the following message on his Facebook page:
"Hi FB fans. As you all have heard by now, I'll be taking off to play for the KHL for the next 2 seasons. It's been a great 18 years with the NHL. I hope you'll continue to support me and maybe someday I can return to the NHL and play hockey for you all again."
"Yes, I said that," Kovalev confirmed.
"I want people to understand me correctly. It doesn't mean I don't like the Russian league. I like the KHL, hockey is improving in the country. It's all great. But I have played in the NHL my entire life. Yes, right now it is interesting for me to play in Atlant. God-willing I will spend not two but four years in Russia. But in the future I would like to end my career in America. At least one more season and to put a full stop."