When he became the first Russian ever taken first overall in the Entry Draft in 2001, Ilya Kovalchuk said he really wanted to win in the NHL. But he had to wait a very long time for the chance to finally show how good he could be as a player.
At the end of the 2007-2008 season, with the Atlanta Thrashers missing the playoffs yet again, Kovalchuk said, "I still cannot showcase myself in the Stanley Cup playoffs… I have been in the NHL for six years and haven't done what I wanted. It's like I am banging against the wall. There is no result."
Kovalchuk thought his luck had changed when he was traded to the New Jersey Devils in 2010. But more of the same followed. He had his worst season in the NHL last year after signing a monster $102 million deal.
The criticism and public pressure came hand in hand; it affected Kovalchuk to the point where he almost requested a trade from the Devils. It was recently disclosed by Kovalchuk's own mother, Lyubov, that Ilya had those thoughts.
She spoke with Sovetsky Sport's Pavel Lysenkov and said, "It was difficult to work with that coach [John MacLean]. He didn't really let Ilya play…
"Ilya was taking it very hard. But I kept telling him 'You need to weather it, son. Prove everything on the ice.' And then there was such a time when he was ready to ask New Jersey for a trade. He didn't voice it loud, but that decision was becoming ripe. He told me on the phone: 'That's it. I am going to the general manager.' [And I said] 'What are you doing, wait! So much was done to get your contract with the Devils approved. And now you will quit?'"
But Kovalchuk has never been a quitter. And he wasn't about to become one then.
He had to overcome adversity and prove himself from the early age.
At 15, he was practicing every morning in his home town of Tver. By night, he'd get on a three-hour journey to Moscow to play for his junior team. He was made a scapegoat by the media in Russia for his lackluster — in their opinion — play for the national team, until his game-winner in Quebec that won the Worlds gold for the Russians for the first time in 15 years.
It has now been 11 years in the NHL for him and finally he gets his chance to win the ultimate prize.
"This guy has made a commitment in a lot of different areas," DeBoer told the New York Post. "He changed positions. He's playing a 200-foot game, killing penalties. He's getting rewards like we told him he would. You see the sacrificing he's made. You need rewards for that."
Kovalchuk has transformed his game and silenced his critics with the way he played this season, and especially in the playoffs. At 29, he is now the fifth on the list of highest Russian scorers in the NHL behind only Slava Kozlov, Alexei Kovalev, Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov.
The leadership qualities some people knew about well before — the ones that first showed after he was traded to New Jersey and stood in the locker room after the final game of the season answering questions like a true leader — are now talked about by his teammates, like Eric Boulton:
"He's leading the team, and this is when it counts."