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Thrashers' future hinges on talented, fiery rookies
Jeff Schultz - Staff
His English remains limited, but certain things are easy to translate without a Russian-English dictionary. The tone, the inflection, the look from an opponent, is all Ilya Kovalchuk needs to know to realize an opponent isn't saying, "Welcome to America."
"They say something to me sometimes," the Thrashers' 18-year-old says. "But I don't understand all the words yet. So I smile at them and then I go score a goal."
Soon, Ilya Kovalchuk will come to understand the words. Soon, opponents will come to understand the two commodities the Thrashers have imported this season, one by way of Russia, the other from Madison, Wis.
As the Thrashers prepare to open the season Thursday in Buffalo, there are questions about the team's goaltending and the depth of proven veteran scorers.
Finding a skeptic regarding the futures of rookie forwards Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley, 20, is far more difficult.
Both are first-round draft picks, both the sons of former athletes, both have insatiable appetites to score goals, although their respective routes to the net often differ.
"It's certainly apparent when they're on the ice that they both want the puck, and they're going to get it a lot," said center Ray Ferraro, 37, who began his career in 1984 when Kovalchuk was a year old in Tver, Russia. "And when they get it, they shoot it. That's the mark of someone pretty special."
Such are rare words from a man who is closing in on 400 NHL goals. But for those who didn't have the luxury of watching Kovalchuk in international tournaments or with Spartak in the Russian league or Heatley the past two years with the University of Wisconsin, their skills have been apparent the past few weeks.
Heatley had six goals and 10 points in four games at a rookie tournament in Traverse City, Mich. He followed that with three goals in the exhibition season. Kovalchuk was relatively quiet in Michigan but left an indelible mark on the preseason, with six goals and four assists in six games.
They have contrasting styles but share fearlessness and confidence. To quote the man who drafted both, Thrashers general manager Don Waddell, "You never know how fast some of your young players are going to come along. But certainly the early signs are we're going to be in pretty good shape."
Kovalchuk was 3 when his father, Valeri, a basketball player, began taking him to the gym for workouts that included stretches and coordination drills. Valeri didn't know what sport his son would play, but Ilya would be ready.
"At night, my father and I would sit on the balcony," Kovalchuk said through a translator, Inar Treiguts, the team's Latvian massage therapist. "We would talk about things. He was developing me physically and mentally."
Valeri looked out the window one day and saw Ilya, then 5, playing street hockey. The sport had been chosen.
Confidence has never been a problem. "I always scored goals and I was always the leader," Kovalchuk said.
He learned about all the great past Russian players such as Valeri Kharlamov, a star from the 1970s, by watching tapes. Kharlamov died the year Kovalchuk was born, but Ilya wears No. 17 as a tribute. Ilya didn't know much about the NHL until 1994, when, as an 11-year-old, he watched Vancouver and fellow countryman Pavel Bure face the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals. Prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, NHL games could not be viewed through the Iron Curtain.
It wasn't until a tournament in Ontario three years ago that Kovalchuk got his first taste of capitalism and he began to think about an NHL career. That's when agents began circling. Scouts were blown away not merely by his speed and skill but a welcome nastiness. If the kid had to go over someone instead of around him to make a play, he would do it.
Before the draft, he admitted, "I can be a hothead," and it was evident against the New York Islanders. Kovalchuk began shoving Islanders in the middle of a scrum and then tackled defenseman Kenny Jonsson, drawing a roughing penalty. When he came out of the box, he got the puck, whirled down the ice and nearly scored.
When there's a two-on-two, Kovalchuk doesn't see his teammate, he sees the two guys he has to beat. But this was expected and can be corrected.
"You can't play a one-on-one in this league, no matter how good you are," coach Curt Fraser said. "But what a different player this guy is compared to Bure or somebody else. He gets involved. He goes to the net hard. He goes to those high-traffic areas where a lot of players in the league don't."
The expectations are lofty for the first Russian ever to go No. 1 in the draft. "He can be a 100-point scorer for 10 years," Waddell said. And the ability is that evident.
Kovalchuk, who is taking English lessons, is adjusting to his surroundings and being a pro athlete.
"Everything here is taken care of for you," he said. "All I have to do is worry about playing hockey. I don't have to carry my own bag or do my own laundry. It wasn't this way in Russia. When I go on the road I wear a suit. I feel human."
And what of all the attention?
"It is like a bonus check," he said. "There's no pressure."
Heatley doesn't have the flash or speed of Kovalchuk but he is there in impact. He is in the mode of an NHL power forward. He has a goal-scorer's touch and a hard, accurate shot. He has the vision and passing ability to move from right wing to center.
At Wisconsin, where his father, Murray, also starred, Heatley finished with 24 goals and 33 assists in 39 games last year and led an undermanned Wisconsin team to within one game of the Frozen Four. The 20-year-old matured significantly in the latter part of his sophomore season, and he's more polished and under control than Kovalchuk, which is to be expected at 2 years older.
"I got pretty frustrated with some things early last year, but I learned to deal with things better now," he said. "That's going to help me at this level."
Born in Germany, raised in Calgary, Heatley established himself byscoring 70 goals in 1998-99 as the Canadian Junior A player of the year. He enrolled at Wisconsin and asked for No. 41, but he denies the story circulated by his coach, Jeff Sauer, that it was because he said he wanted to score 41 goals as a freshman.
"A made-up story," he said.
Twenty-eight goals was enough. The Thrashers took him second overall last year after the Islanders gambled on goalie Rick DiPietro. He's now going through the same adjustment as Kovalchuk: hockey as a career.
"You focus on one thing now instead of a couple of things," Heatley said. "I like it. You do your job, you get your work done at the rink and then you go home. The big thing is figuring out what you're going to do the rest of the day."
The two rookies roomed together in Traverse City and have become good friends.
Said Kovalchuk, "I could have hung out with a different guy from the farm club. But since Dany and I are in the same position and have the same goals, it made it easy for us to bond."
Everybody else will learn about them soon enough.
Страничка Ильи Ковальчука на
сайте "Звёзды с Востока"
9 сентября. Kovalchuk may miss start of camp -
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
25 августа. Форвард Илья Ковальчук: Я еду в «Химик»
- Советский Спорт
29 марта .Илья Ковальчук: "Это был ужасный сезон"
9 сентября. Kovalchuk may miss start of camp - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
25 августа. Форвард Илья Ковальчук: Я еду в «Химик» - Советский Спорт
29 марта .Илья Ковальчук: "Это был ужасный сезон" - Спорт-Экспресс