I cannot even name how many players have told me over the years that Alexei Kovalev was the best captain team Russia had in years. Kovalev was the first Russian player ever to be drafted in the first round. He was the first Russian to be an All Star captain. Kovalev was also the first Russian, along with Alexander Karpovtsev, Sergei Nemchinov, and Sergei Zubov(notes) to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup. In 1992 he won a World Junior Championship and an Olympic gold.
But even off the ice Kovalev remained a leader all these years. His summer hockey academy in Russia attracts a lot of young players and helps to promote the game. I also remember a story when a young fan from Grande-Riviere in Canada wrote him a letter, and Kovalev flew his Cessna-414 to that town to meet with the locals and go whale watching with them.
I met with Kovalev after Thursday's game against the Washington Capitals. I waited for Alexei while he was chatting with Alexander Ovechkin. Did he give the young Capital any advice on being a captain? "No!" - Kovalev told me laughing. "He is a big guy, he knows everything!"
But I really wanted to get his take on the Ottawa Senators. Here's what he had to say.
Q. Your entire first line is injured. Does it mean that you have now more pressure to produce without them?
KOVALEV: A lot of teams have injuries. Everyone has to play, whoever gets the opportunity. Anyone who didn't get a lot of ice time until now gets this opportunity. Everyone has to play, and not just one or two players.
How would you rate your own game?
It's alright. It is difficult to create something now. The time is different. The entire team, the entire line has to work for each other to create something.
What do you mean?
10-15 years ago, when guys didn't skate that well, it was possible to create something single handed. But now players have a lot more skill. And they skate much better. Hockey is very different now. It is obvious that it is very difficult to create something on the ice alone. Sometimes it happens, but as a rule the accent is on a team, passing game.
You played in the back a lot tonight. Like a third defenseman. Is this your coach's decision?
It's not like that. It's just whenever you get under pressure from the opposing team, it is easier to get the puck out of the zone. It so happened that neither forwards nor defensemen could help each other out on time. Our game looked a lot like dump and chase. It was not the type of hockey the Ottawa Senators usually show. But these games take place, when you're loosing. But the opposite has to take place: when you're losing, you have to take risks, push yourself to the limit. And we always seem to be afraid of taking the puck, making a pass, driving forward. There is some sort of fear. There is no consistency. That's how we're playing: we win a game, then we lose a game. We are not bad at home, we win there. It's a lot of help. On the other hand, there is a big road trip coming up for us. We need to get as many points as possible. It won't get any easier.
Did you get used to playing with your linemates? It does take some time getting used to the new team.
But you still play with different guys. Of course, now you understand how everyone plays. It's a lot easier to adjust now. But sometimes it still happens that you wait for one thing, but something different happens. But this is about chemistry and being ready. If we have the same chemistry it will be easier to understand each other.
Not long ago you scored four goals.
I had an injury. I couldn't even shoot right. I tried to pass, in general. But lately I have started feeling more or less better. And I started having chances. Before it was either a missed shot, a post or something else. And not my aim is set.
What should we expect from Alexei Kovalev in the second half of the season?
I am playing to my full strength, the best I can. But not everything depends on me. My father wanted me to pick an individual discipline sport. Everything depends on you there. In hockey one player can do a lot. One or two games he can win. But after that, opponents adjust to his game. Everyone watches video, everyone know how your team and individual players play.
How did the fact that you were not included in the Olympic team affect you? A lot of Russian players say that Kovalev is a true captain.
Once again, it didn't depend on me. It could have been expected. My statistics are not that good this year. Although I think that I didn't do that bad in the last 20 games. But at the same time a lot of coaches would have made the same decision. When your team wins two World Championships in a row, as a rule, the core of the team remains the same. That's why I anticipated that regardless of my results this season, coaches would pay more attention to those players who they worked with before and know what to do with them. Moreover, there is not a lot of time before the Olympics to train and play together as a team. It is easier to pick the team that was there before. You know the guys and who should play with who.
Does this mean you were ready psychologically?
On one hand, yes. On the other - I really wanted to go to the Olympics. But I am happy that I have won this tournament once. And the extra rest will always help. There will be 10 days to better prepare for the final games of the regular season. To make a real push to make sure our team makes the playoffs and go far.