Kovalchuk defies the stereotypes
Ilya Kovalchuk didn't seek the comfort of his stall or the structure of the podium following the Devils' series-clinching Game 6 win against the Rangers Friday night. Instead, he stood in the middle of the team's dressing room, swarmed by reporters, and patiently answered the waves of questions directed his way.
There were no surreptitious glances at the nearest exit or clipped responses to curtail the steady mob of media.
Kovalchuk had waited 10 years for this moment to come, and with his team headed to the Stanley Cup finals, he was able to finally bask in the achievement.
Dogged by doubts and labels since breaking into the league as a talented 18-year-old Russian in 2001, Kovalchuk is on the verge of silencing one of his most lingering critiques.
He's four wins away from a Stanley Cup championship.
"I think it's the biggest event I've ever been in in my career, so I'm just going to enjoy it and play as hard as I can," he said.
It's been a renaissance year for Kovalchuk, whose 83-point regular-season reaffirmed his status as one of the league's most potent offensive threats, but not just in terms of pure production.
His league-leading 18-point playoff contribution makes it tough for any detractor to box him into the typical labels often reserved for those with last names difficult to pronounce: enigmatic, mercurial, selfish.
He has led the team when it counts.
"Superstars often get bad raps, especially Russian superstars," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said before the series began. "That couldn't be further from the case. This guy could be born in Canada or the United States and you wouldn't know the difference other than his accent.
"He's here to win. He's a team-first guy. He's very unselfish and he's just a great person. I don't think that's common knowledge around the league."
It may become common knowledge now as Kovalchuk continues to change perception win by win.
For a player whose tenure in Atlanta was marked by his sole postseason appearance in the 2006-07 season, the chance to succeed was what lured him to New Jersey. And the playoffs have offered him an opportunity to redefine himself as a man and player beyond just his $100 million contract.
"You could look at his individual skills, look at his scoring ability, breakaway speed, size, passing, playmaking ability. You can look at his talent from an individual standpoint, but what stuck with me is that he's a winner," said his agent Jay Grossman, who has known Kovalchuk since he was a teen. "People on the outside can have a tough time measuring that sometimes, especially in this case when it took a while."
Those who know him shake their head or chuckle when they hear the tired but familiar characterizations of a superstar whose first language isn't English. Kovalchuk doesn't fit the petulant prima donna role. This is a guy who offered his credit card to make sure the Thrashers team training staff was outfitted in nice, new suits when the players were getting their own measurements taken. A guy that still asks about a former team executive's beloved Miniature Pinscher each time the two cross paths. A guy whose sharp wit and stealth sense of humor has endeared him to teammates for years.
"Talk about somebody that gets labeled the wrong way," said Dan Marr, who was the director of scouting for Atlanta when the Thrashers selected him first overall in the 2001 draft.
Each new Kovalchuk moment this postseason has poked a hole in those convenient stereotypes, and on Friday he added a few more. Whether it was his surgical finish of a beautiful power-play passing sequence or his mad dash to bury teammate Adam Henrique in a celebratory pile-up after the 22-year-old rookie drove home the game-winner in overtime, the pure, unfiltered joy on his face makes it clear.
There is one thing that Kovalchuk wants as a New Jersey Devil: Win.