Many players came to the hockey-crazed city of Montreal over the years hoping to win over a crowd who breaths hockey. To say the task is difficult would be an understatement. The Canadians fans love their team and it’s players with passion. As with every relationship that fuel on passion and love, hate is a big part of the equation. Bombarded with the opinion and analysis from former coaches, players and journalists, the crowd who applauded last week’s performance can turn around, smell blood and start hunting for it. Worst of all is the fact that criticism rarely stays purely in hockey terms. It gets personal. The Theodore debacle demonstrated this in a rather ugly light. From a near undisputed idol status, the former Hart winner unable to perform adequately became a social reject. His past was dragged for everyone to see. Any non-hockey related story who could put Handsome Theo in a precarious position was discussed and analysed by the media. With Theodore gone and the Three Amigos disbanded, who would be the next
to be dragged to the altar of overexposure? The lucky candidate always needs to fill the following criterias:
Being one of the team’s best player
Taking a good part of the team’s salary cap
Being non-politically correct / not telling the latest public relations prepared answer
Being inconsistent in the performance given every night
From the very first day Alex Kovalev stepped into the jungle of Montreal, he became the talk of the city and why shouldn’t he? Having been the designated winger for two of the best hockey players ever to grace the sport (Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux), known as one of the premier stickhandler in the league and possessing strength and raw talent 80% of the NHL players would seal a pact with the Devil to possess, it is no wonder the sell-out crowd present the first time this man stepped foot on Bell Centre’s ice reacted with a standing ovation given only to the selected few. The Anointed One, this elusive star forward Montreal had craved for so long had finally made his way to the Mecca of Hockey. How could it be possible to receive Russia’s national team captain for Josef Balej and a draft pick? Too good to be true? Apart from his formidable skills, Kovalev carried with him a enigmatic reputation. Anyone looking at his career stats can only wonder how one so gifted have such ordinary stats. Not to say these were bad stats but nothing extravagant nonetheless. Almost everyone had heard about the story of Mike Keenan getting so annoyed with AK-27 lengthy shifts that he punished the guy by forcing him to stay on the ice for six whole minutes. Quebec Nordiques fans remember all too well the series of 1995 against the New York Rangers in which Kovalev faked an injury after being tapped by defenceman Wolanin. All this resulted in Joe Sakic being refused a goal, the Nordiques being eliminated and moving soon after to Denver. This is a strange amalgam of events. If you put together the formidable skills, raw talent, strength and a way to tell things exactly as he sees them and you add all the bizarre events surrounding Kovalev together, you have a rather complex character. Did I mention that he is a pilot, owns his own aircraft, plays saxophone, created The Friends of Kovy (he invites sick children to the Bell Centre prior to a game in a corporate box he bought for this occasion and plays table hockey with them) and visited a fan at her house because she wrote a letter that touched him. Certainly not the average hockey player, don’t you think?
The French media dubbed Alex Kovalev with the nickname The Artist. At first sight, we would be tempted to think it was simply chosen because he plays hockey with grace, his moves are sometimes so beautiful, so skillfully made that it can certainly be called art. While the latter is true, this nickname hides something else, something deeper. To understand that, you have to understand the nature of an artist. He tries to creates something out of the ordinary, a never-seen-before sight because he qualify himself by his art. That is what makes him unique as an individual. For this reason, the artist doesn’t generally socialize much with those around him. They don’t speak the same language. While others work to be efficient, the artist works to create. Another caracteristic is that when he isn’t able to create, he generally gets sloppy. Of course, this is all a large generalization but when you apply this to Kovalev, this is rather revealing. More often than not, he will try the more complex play. Never will you see him dumping the puck. It is also well known gossip in Montreal that The Artist, while not in bad terms with his teammates, tends to skate alone, honing his skills. Once we understand this, the last part is even more revealing. When Guy Carbonneau became the new coach of the Montreal Canadians, all knew we would exactly see offensive-minded hockey. Mr. Carbonneau, while being a great defensive player (a Frank J. Selke winner), he was never known as an offensive threat. Those who have less talent generally work much harder than the talented and far from being a bad thing, you could expect the confrontation before it began. A few years back, Guy Carbonneau was a player paid to stop Kovalev. Technique vs. skill, hard work vs. raw talent, defence vs. offence. Like fire and water. Last year, the Canadians played a tight defensive game. You never saw the best players being put together on a line or a powerplay. They had to protect the one or two goal margin and the offensive players were criticized if the defence suffered from an unsuccessful attack. The offensive players never had as much ice-time as their counterparts in the league. While it doesn’t excuse last year’s faults, it certainly explains why The Artist was brooding. He wasn’t able to create and so, like some artists, he became sloppy. Frustrated, rumors of his exit from Montreal became frequent. Then came the story in the mysterious tape from Russia in which he attacked the organization. Frustrated and suffocating in this system, Kovalev’s fire extinguished.
The media smelled blood and came of it. The fans were just beginning to forget the Theodore Saga and the weird end of Mike Ribeiro’s time in Montreal that a new chapter began. The folks from Montreal can still remember all the hateful comments the story of Russia’s tape generated. Many journalists shared their insight and God knows we heard all that is possible. At TQS (a television channel hosting 110%), we heard that Kovalev lied when he said he never told such comments because he was from the old U.S.S.R and lying was a way of living to survive back then. La Presse (who broke the story) told it was the right time to get rid of the traitor (exact words) and that Kovalev was like a Godfather for the Russian players. They came to pay their respect to Russia’s captain each time some of them came to play in Montreal. The open lines were even worst. Here an excerpt of what could be heard: What can you expect from a Russian? They play with no heart and are in it only for the money. The rest cannot even be translated without using offensive language. Everyone had his opinion in this matter. It was a sad day for those who love the sport for the simple love of the game. At least, positive things came out of it. The players decided to move on. Guy Carbonneau had the delightful idea of creating The Nation’s Cup: a competition with the players from North America vs. Rest of the World. Some found the idea amusing, other thought it was an act of arrogance but in the end, it served it’s purpose. The rest of the story is well-known. Despite all the good intentions, the Canadians missed the playoffs by losing to Toronto in the last game of the season. The dark year had finally come to an end.
After the bitterness of failure, many wondered if The Artist would be shipped during the off-season. The team couldn’t possibly allow another scandal to destroy the inner core of the team. Even though Mr. Gainey perfectly knows that the media are waiting for a faux-pas from Kovalev’s part to wage war again, the anointed one is given another shot to finish what he began in Montreal’s jungle.
The Artist is free to create once more. Le Cirque des Canadians is open for business! Come and see the Artist do his magical trick, pleasure guaranteed!
Coming soon: Kovalev : Understanding the Russian Enigma (Part II) / Kovalev Reborn?