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декабря 2005 года.
From Russia with love. Kovalchuk grateful for family's presence // The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By STEVE HUMMER
The approaching New Year is the same everywhere in one respect. A person can stand in that one spot and take in the cyclorama of a life. The past is open to inventory and the future vulnerable to any wild promise. It's all there.
To a Russian, New Years Day is also the money holiday; more so even than Christmas; the time to exchange the gifts and tally the blessings. Ilya Kovalchuk will be getting to that late, returning from an afternoon game at Washington. In the crowded house of Kovalchuk, the Franchise Thrasher has much to survey.
He can look at the year gone by and try not to reel. He lost his 58-year-old father Valeri, the one-time basketball player who turned all his energies into the making of one of the NHL's most precocious goal-scorers. He became a father himself, daughter Carolina born in September. After an anxious negotiation that stretched right up to the re-opening of the NHL, he signed a 5-year, $32 million contract with the Thrashers and became, with the departure of Dany Heatley, this team's signature performer.
And what of the year to come? He sees a team that met its first flare of expectation, and blinked. If the Thrashers do not continue to steady themselves after an abysmal beginning and get to their first postseason, surely much of the disappointment will fall on their 22-year-old left winger.
"That's what we chose as leaders," said the coach now responsible for channeling Kovalchuk's immense talents, Bob Hartley. "You're going to get singled out, but no one put a gun to our heads and said we had to do it.
"If it goes well, you're simply doing your job. When things don't go well, the accountability factor comes into play. That's where you need to be at your best. I think Kovy can handle this very well. The more he grows as a person, the more he'll grow as a player. That's part of maturing."
Surrounded by women
All that has happened to Kovalchuk in his brief life and all that is expected of him, he meets in the same stoic fashion. His ever-improving second tongue still does not allow for explaining himself in subtle detail to the home audience. Given his native self-confidence, he may consider any such explanation unnecessary.
Shy, his coach calls him. Sweet, his agent says. Still, Kovalchuk is an enigma wrapped in a cultural disconnect. A star who would need to walk any Atlanta mall in his sweater and skates to be widely recognized.
A player of Michael Vick-like offensive attributes without a tenth of the scrutiny or fame. His skills are worthy of just as loud a debate on what he should be.
Four things you may not know about Kovalchuk:
• He is greatly outnumbered at home, a three-bedroom apartment for now until his home in Buckhead is finished in February. With his mother, Loubov, here for an extended visit, Kovalchuk is now bordered on all sides by women. Under the same roof is Kovalchuk's girlfriend, Nicol Ambrazaitis, their daughter and their Russian nanny.
"My girlfriend's dog, even she is a girl," Kovalchuk said.
• A striking blonde, far slimmer than anyone who gave birth just three months ago has a right to be, Nicol was a singer in Russia, part of a three-girl band called "Mirage." Through an interpreter, she explained that the group has been together since the 1980s, regularly refreshed with new singers.
Their signature song, she said, is pop number that roughly translates to "Music Unites Us."
She hopes to return to Russia in the summer to pick up her performing as a soloist. "But for me, the family is more important now," Nicol said. Setting up the new house while trying to adjust to a different country and culture (she only came to the U.S. in September to have Carolina) is challenge enough for now.
• Introduced by a mutual friend, the two met in Moscow in the summer of 2003. Is marriage on the docket? "No, I'm not thinking about it yet," Kovalchuk says quietly.
• Those around Kovalchuk all note that he has a soft spot for children, not just his own. Perhaps that's because he always could communicate with them on some level, or because he's not so far removed from childhood himself.
"I like kids," he said. "I think that's a big part of your life. You have to share with kids. When I was young and some guys like famous basketball players or hockey players came and visit you and talk to you, it was really cool. I remember that and want to do the same."
His local charitable work surrounds childhood cancer programs. He seems more compelled to sign an autograph if the hand holding the pen is a small one. "Everywhere we go he will always do extra steps to meet a kid," Hartley said. "He will see a kid on the road with a jersey or a Sharpie in his hand, and Kovy will take the extra steps, go there."
Being thrust into fatherhood is but one more part of the growing of Ilya Kovalchuk. The word applied to him these days more than any other is "maturity," as if Kovalchuk were a pear left on the counter to ripen. That word is musical to any Thrashers fan who has been there from the erratic first years.
A gradual transition
He arrived on the doorstep of the Thrashers an 18-year-old phenom, taken first in the 2001 NHL entry draft. He led all rookies with 29 goals despite a shoulder injury, while still a teenager trying to fit in with men who often spoke a different language and played a different sort of game.
"Everything is different," said the Thrashers Slava Kozlov, who signed with Detroit in 1991, at 19. "The culture. The language is the biggest problem, I think. The lifestyle. Sometimes you don't understand in the locker room what they're talking about. They're making some jokes, you feel like you are out of it.
"I think Ilya did it much better. I was unhappy the first couple years. It took me more time than Ilya to make some adjustments, getting used to the team and the coaching staff."
"First, when I came here, I just wanted (to speak) Russian," Kovalchuk said. "The first couple weeks, I just hung around, tried to understand. Then I read the books, magazines, watch the movies. It's easier when you don't have any Russians around, you have to learn."
Kovalchuk and then-coach Curt Fraser would rub on each other regularly — the young goal-scorer not grasping his duties on the defensive end of the ice. (Think of asking Michael Vick to play nickel back). Frustrations were evident on both sides, especially as the losses compounded. With that was born the impression that Kovalchuk was a stubborn player dedicated only to that half of the ice where the points live.
"An unfair criticism," agent Jay Grossman contends. "In the Russian system, you have to play defense. And, given the nature of the (expansion) Thrashers, they were behind in a lot of games and needed someone to try to score. He's an exceptional talent striving to do what he does best."
Learning to grow up
It was a volatile commodity that Hartley inherited when he signed on in January of '03. One would dare say a type of genius, who does with a puck what Einstein did with physical law. Kovalchuk takes scoring to another dimension.
Case in point No. 1: Dec. 11 against Chicago, the Thrashers rallying from a 3-0 hole. For his second goal of the night, Kovalchuk takes a puck tumbling at knee level off the back boards, and pokes it into a mail slot of space between the goal post and imminent goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. "I don't think there are too many guys who could have done that," countryman and friend Khabibulin said afterward. "It's a relief I don't have to play him eight times anymore (having moved out of Tampa Bay and the Thrashers division)."
No softie, Hartley still can recognize that special players may require special treatment. He arguably calls scoring a goal in the NHL — even with the new point-friendly rules — one of the hardest tasks in sports.
"No. 1, you can never take the game away from a goal-scorer," the coach said.
"To make a player like this a good defensive player is impossible, and I think it would be our loss," he continued. "On the other hand, make him responsible. I prefer using that term. I don't want him sitting in our zone waiting because I want him to be good defensively — I just want him to be responsible.
"When the other team has the puck you have to understand that Kovy will not score a goal. The quicker we take the puck away from the other team, the quicker we can get on the attack and Kovy or his line mates can have a shot at scoring a goal and winning some games."
Almost daily, the coach and the superstar huddle over a tape machine, where some rudiment of hockey gets hammered home. The tutoring requires patience and pliancy from both parties.
"I think he respects (Hartley) a lot," Kozlov said of Kovalchuk. "He respects his coaching decision. I think Bob put (it to) him in the right way. He talks to him, he has meetings, shows him videos. He is like a teacher. He spends lots of time with him to make him a better player. I think in Ilya's first years, they didn't spend enough time to educate him."
Is Kovalchuk hard-headed? "Every kid is hard-headed," Hartley said. "I was hard-headed. It's not a weakness. I think it's a strength because you believe in yourself, as long as you're ready to listen, take what's good and throw away what's not good."
Rouding into elite form
On the ice, is he as easy to read as Spillane? His emotions, like his skating, are fluid, flowing foul when the going is slushy yet effervescing when it begins raining goals. He displays the emotional range of an eccentric chessmaster - from zero to giddy in six seconds, and back. Look no further back than Thursday, when he drew a 10-minute major for throwing his broken stick into the seats in frustration. "Yeah, I think he does (wear emotions on his sleeve)," said teammate Marc Savard. "He's younger, he gets frustrated a little bit when things aren't going great. When things are going good you can see that big smile - I want to see that smile more."
The slow completing of Kovalchuk is not lost on those around him. Even the outside observer can pick up the signs.
Case in point No. 2: Against Columbus Dec. 9, he changes from closer to set-up man, chipping in three assists leading to a Ronald Petrovicky hat trick. Afterward, he chooses a popular mantra — "I don't care about the points, seriously. I want to do my best on the ice to help my team. It's great when you got the points, but the most important thing is two points for everybody (in the standings)." And appear to mean it to his marrow.
And No. 3: Kovalchuk's contribution to an overtime winner against New Jersey Dec. 15 was a lovely bit of teamwork. On the power play, Kovalchuk held the puck, building the anticipation of some inspired shot. Then at the perfect moment, every Devil leaning his way, Kovalchuk the decoy deftly passed off to Savard for the slam-bang winner.
In the last real season — 2003-04 — Kovalchuk finished tied for the league lead in goals. This season, after leading all NHL players in goals (13) and assists (26) in November, he entered Friday's game against New Jersey tied for fourth in the league with 22 goals. Since the start of the 2002 season, no one has scored more goals than Kovalchuk (he and Vancouver's Markus Naslund are tied at 101).
"He obviously relies on his shot a lot, but there's other parts of his game he's very good at," Hartley said. "With a little experience, he's going to have more than one pitch in his arsenal. Like a pitcher at 18 years old, if he only has a fastball, he might be good in college but you will never progress. I'm trying to make him combine speed, responsibility on the ice and his goal-scoring touch."
Kovalchuk stands on the ledge of impulsive youth and speaks of taking the next step: "I'm getting older. You're learning something every year. I've got a daughter now. You have to be more responsible. I'm ready for that. I'm getting older, and you have to learn something every day."
He has run a gauntlet of life experience. Goals and expectations are crystallizing before him. At the start of this New Year, Kovalchuk has all he needs. The future is on his stick.
25 декабря. From Russia with love. Kovalchuk grateful
for family's presence // The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
9 сентября. Kovalchuk may miss start of camp -
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
25 декабря. From Russia with love. Kovalchuk grateful for family's presence // The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
9 сентября. Kovalchuk may miss start of camp - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution