Ilya Kovalchuk had a close-up view of his alternative universe Thursday night. Another Russian hockey star. Another former No. 1 draft pick. Another franchise trying to work its way into the NHL elite — though significantly closer than his own. A fan base back home, comatose seemingly a week ago, that now runs through turnstiles to watch hockey, even if their driveway sits closer to SEC games than the northern provinces.
Kovalchuk wants that. Alex Ovechkin has that.
“He’s totally into it there — that’s where he wants to be,” Kovalchuk said Thursday before the Thrashers’ game against Washington. “The first time he came there, there was an empty building. Now it’s sold out every game. Every player wants to play in that situation. But it’s not just him that made that possible. They have great players around him. They built it.”
The Thrashers are still trying to get there. Kovalchuk scored two goals and Ovechkin was held scoreless. But a rally fell short and Thrashers lost to the Capitals, 5-4, at Philips Arena.
“We’re going to battle them all year long,” Kovalchuk said.
He’ll be fine. No matter how his contract negotiations with the Thrashers evolve, he will remain one of the NHL’s biggest stars. He has grown up. Marriage, fatherhood, being named a team captain — those things change a person. As teammate Slava Kozlov said, “When he was named captain, he started playing with more passion, more responsibility.”
No matter where Kovalchuk plays next season, he will have those qualities. The question is where he will have them.
There is certainty with Ovechkin. The Capitals drafted him in 2004. It was like an E.R. surgeon placed electric paddles on a franchise’s chest. Maybe the awakening wasn’t immediate, but nobody had to wait long. After missing the postseason in four out of five seasons (two with Ovechkin), Washington won consecutive Southeast Division totals.
Last season, the Capitals won 50 games. They sold out 29. That was more than the previous five seasons combined (20).
Ovechkin has that. Kovalchuk wants that.
Hockey is off the radar in Atlanta. Hangovers from so many non-playoff seasons (and no wins) don’t easily subside.
“People believe as soon as you win,” Kovalchuk said.
The Thrashers are off to a strong start (4-2-1). Seven games into an 82-game season, caution is the operative word. But it says something that the team is young, aggressive, disciplined and following their coach, John Anderson. It says something that Kovalchuk is excited. He hasn’t put his name on a contract extension yet; he has said nothing to indicate it’s not going to happen.
This has never been about Atlanta. He loves living here. (“Every day, I can wear a T-shirt,” he said, and don’t discount that factor after so many Russian winters.)
This never has been about playing in a traditional hockey market. There are advantages to being one of your sport’s biggest stars but nobody knowing you in the produce section at Publix. (When asked if he had grown tired of being asked about his contract, he smiled and said, “It’s good I’m only in Atlanta.”)
This always has been about the organization and its direction. It’s about winning. Ovechkin, his close friend, signed a monster contract last season: 13 years, $124 million. He made a commitment to the city and the franchise. Both sides in the Thrashers-Kovalchuk negotiations can paint this publicly anyway they like. But the bottom line is, he just hasn’t decided whether to make that commitment yet.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take — what I should to sign [for] or how long I should sign for,” he said. “It’s a big deal.”
He greeted Ovechkin with a chest bump in the morning. Kovalchuk was on the ice at Philips Arena, Ovechkin had just emerged from the visiting locker room by the Caps’ bench. They’ve played together in the Olympics and World Championships. They spend time together in Moscow in the summer.
Now both are back in the NHL and Ovechkin has something Kovalchuk wants.