By Stu Hackel
January 24, 2013
The Panthers are looking to veteran Alexei Kovalev to mentor their growing corps of talented kids.
Minas Panagiotakis/Icon SMI

Of all the unforeseen things that make you go "Whaaaat??" early in this bizarre NHL season -- and there have been plenty -- nothing yet surpasses Alexei Kovalev popping up on the roster of the Florida Panthers as his 40th birthday approaches.

He was done, right? Gone from hockey. Where was he last year? Playing for Atlant in the KHL for just 22 games, totaling a mere goal and five assists before being released, his mobility slowed by knee problems. Where was he this year? Not playing anywhere. It seemed like Alex had left the building.

Then suddenly, he materializes as if from nowhere at the Panthers training camp. He becomes wingman for teenaged rookie sensation Jonathan Huberdeau (who celebrated his first birthday while Kovalev's Rangers were battling the Canucks for the 1994 Stanley Cup), inks a contract, and gets a goal and two assists in his first NHL game in a year and nine months. It's magical, like so much of what Kovalev does.

"I'm happy I had a chance to come back to the NHL and just overall idea to start playing again," he said Tuesday morning, a few hours before Florida's 4-2 loss at Montreal's Bell Centre, the huge arena that was once his playpen. "It's been a long winter, long summer. I was just hoping I could be back here and this team gave me a chance. "

But this is Alex Kovalev, after all, and part of his magic act is that he also disappears. In the two games following his Panthers debut, his amazing skills burst through far less frequently, and he looked more like the inconsequential player we saw over his last three NHL seasons. HIs soft backcheck early in the game Tuesday allowed Montreal's Tomas Plekanec to snap the game-opening tally past Florida goalie Scott Clemmensen and, playing their second game in two nights, the Panthers could never crawl back.

Kovalev has averaged nearly a point per game during the 1,300-plus regular season NHL contests, but most believe he could have done much more. He was the first Russian player ever drafted in the first round -- 15th overall in 1991 by Rangers GM Neil Smith. Three years later, along with fellow Rangers Sergei Nemchinov, Sergei Zubov and Alexander Karpotsev, he was one of the first four Russians to win the Stanley Cup. Greatness was on the horizon.

But Kovalev turned out to be merely good -- and not always -- with periodic gusts up to spectacular. His unfulfilled promise has always frustrated fans and coaches, keeping him and his abilities apart from a guaranteed Hall of Fame career.

No one ever doubted his skill. "Getting to see him firsthand every day in practice, he's by far and away the most talented player I've ever seen on the ice," Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges said Tuesday, echoing the evaluations of so many teammates and opponents over the years. "You can talk all you want about when players get older they slow down and their body may slow down, but he's a guy who keeps in great shape. He was always physical. He's a big man and his talent hasn't left."

From the start, Kovalev possessed a technical proficiency that screamed superstardom. "He could do stuff like flip the puck over the rafters in the ceiling of the practice rink and catch it on the blade of his stick," wrote longtime Rangers beat writer Rick Carpiniello for the suburban Journal News hockey blog. "Or hit the crossbar multiple times, standing by the net down the other end of the ice."

Kovalev was tagged as the game's best player -- but only during practices. His stops with the Rangers (twice), Penguins (twice), Canadiens and Senators were known as much for his uneven play during games as they were for astonishing maneuvers that didn't always pay off.

So why would any team want a slower, older Kovalev now?

"I'm not expecting him to come in here and score 25 goals," says Panthers assistant GM Michael Santos. "Anything he has is great, but what he's really doing is going to add, we hope, to the totals of Jonathan Huberdeau and teaching him how to be a pro. Going to dinner with him, in the locker room, sitting next to him, having Huberdeau say, 'What's it like to do this?' or 'How do you do that?' or 'What's it like to play in Madison Square Garden or the Bell Centre?' It's a big advantage and it's comforting for a young player to have someone like this."

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Minding the Kids

Welcome to Alexei Kovalev 2.0, elder statesman and mentor. His role is not exactly the same as the NHL's other senior citizens, Teemu Selanne, Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney. They're essential to their team's attack. The expectations for Kovalev are different, but no less important. Yes, he wanted one more shot at the NHL -- even joking that he'd like to play with his sons, aged 10 and 8, one day -- but he also wants to assist with the Huberdeau's growth, perhaps leading to something more permanent when he finally does quit. Florida has collected a wealth of high-end prospects. Ranked second in the NHL by Hockey's Future, the Panthers are poised for a leap as a league power and Kovalev's long-term role could be helping to shepherd those kids.

"At this point," he says, "I'm still in good shape. I worked really hard to come back and I'm happy to be playing with a young kid (Huberdeau) who you can learn something from him, and he can learn something from me. There's not many older guys in the league anymore. When I joined the league, the average age was about 28, 30 years old. Now it's like 24, 25. You feel kind of strange at this age. I never thought I would be the oldest guy on the team."

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As far as he's concerned, however, he's not just here to babysit. "I'm OK to help, but at the same time I want to play. You always like to show you can lead by example. I'm just going with it and trying to help as much as possible and hopefully we'll succeed."

"He's been a guy we've been interested in since last summer," Santos revealed. "I had confidence he could make our team and he seemed perfect to help our youngsters. Kovalev is part of a generation of players that our young prospects idolized."

GM Dale Tallon agreed and they quietly arranged for a tryout earlier this month at camp.

Part of what intrigued the Panthers was the training Kovalev experienced as a youngster in the Soviet Union's hockey development program, a renowned athletic system created in the mid-20th Century that was unlike anything in Canada or the U.S. Developing players from an early age in a more rigorous but unorthodox fashion resulted in decades of international hockey dominance. The fall of the Soviet Union in the early '90s triggered a decline in that state-supported hockey apparatus. It also opened the door for Soviet-trained players to come West.

"Those guys came from an old school of training and a lot of what they did back then can really help players today," Santos believes. "In a way, they were ahead of their times."

Santos mentions three areas in which the USSR's hockey academies and leagues proved superior to Canadian and U.S. models: first, with their players' fitness levels and strength; second, the development of their hand skills; and third, the way they think the game.

"That system was developed by some of the greatest hockey minds the game has ever known," Santos says. "They were thinkers on the level of a Scotty Bowman and Alex is one of the last players from that old system. There are a lot of North American kids today who are well-conditioned. This is the best-conditioned generation of players ever. But they don't always have the mind for the game that so many of those players like Igor Larionov and Zubov and Nemchinov had and Pavel Datsyuk and Alex have."

The individualist

Funny thing, though. As a youngster, Young Kovalev's mind for the game differed from other Soviet skaters. He always looked as if he wanted to stickhandle around every player on the other team -- and maybe every player on his own team -- before taking a shot. He was quite unlike the prototypical Soviet forward who believed the man without the puck was the most dangerous man on the ice. Their five-man units played with the sole purpose of creating perfect pass plays that ended with a shot at an unguarded net. They seemed to live for the team, subordinating their own skills. That wasn't Kovalev. He was more an individualist.

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From the time he came to the NHL with the Rangers in 1992, he played with boundless joy, a big, happy thoroughbred tirelessly romping through open fields. It helped make him a very popular teammate. The great Kovy story passed down in hockey's oral tradition has 21-year-old Alex habitually overstaying his 45-second shifts during the lone season that Mike Keenan coached the Rangers. In a February 1994 tilt against Boston, Keenan finally had enough.

In the third period, the coach refused to let Kovalev come off the ice, telling him to stay out each time the winger came to the bench for a change. The Rangers on the bench howled with laughter, refusing to open the gate for him, and the length of Kovalev's shift grew. He was uncertain if he was being rewarded for good play or being punished, but he wanted to show Keenan he could indeed play amazingly long stretches without rest. He even scored a goal and narrowly missed another.

With retelling over the years, the shift's duration has inflated to as much as 16 minutes. It was actually about half that. But Keenan has called it "a teachable moment," a cliché that has never been more accurate.

Alex played a big part in the Rangers' first Cup win since 1940, and Keenan immediately departed after winning it. His successors Colin Campbell and John Muckler didn't have the same rapport with Kovalev. Reconstructive knee surgery in 1997 forced him to miss the second half of the season and the Rangers playoff run to the Conference Championship round, fueled by a reunited Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. The operation was also the start of his chronic knee problems. Defensive deficiencies infuriated his coaches when he returned with the NHL deep in the defense-first Dead Puck Era, and he was shipped to Pittsburgh in 1998.

As a Penguin, Kovalev finally achieved the superstar status that Keenan and others believed he'd reach. A 44-goal, 95-point season in 2000-01 ranked fourth best in the league. Most attributed it to maturity. Kovalev admitted to making some adjustments. "Instead of beating the same guy three times, I'm trying to beat one guy, then take the puck to the net as soon as possible," he told Dejan Kovacevic of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Every move I make this year, I'm making it so I can get the puck to the net. That way, I can finish with a shot or a good pass."

The Penguins' ongoing financial problems meant they couldn't keep Kovalev as his contract ran out, and in early 2003, he was briefly a Ranger again. A year later, he was dealt to Montreal, where the love of speed and skill eventually made him a fan favorite on one of the game's biggest stages.

He had his ups and downs there, too, and needed reassuring words from then-GM Bob Gainey, who sometimes invited Kovalev on long walks around the harbor area and Old Montreal, hopeful of inspiring his play. It worked best in 2007-08, when his 35 goals and 85 points earned a postseason Second Team All-Star selection.

But the enigmatic side of Kovy inevitably returned. Always maintaining that he was giving his best, it didn't always appear that way, especially on the defensive side of the puck.

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"Hockey games aren't always oil paintings and, in Kovalev's world, every game has to be an oil painting," says one long-time NHL talent evaluator. "And they're just not. It's a nasty, bloody, physical, mayhem-filled sport. But he's an artist and he plays every single game like he's trying to create an oil painting."

The artist

Not coincidentally, Montreal's media called him "L'artiste" during his five seasons with the Canadiens, carrying all the good and bad connotations that come along with an artistic temperament. When his contract was up in 2009, the Habs let him walk, and he walked into a two-year deal with Ottawa. where he didn't mesh well with coach Cory Clouston -- or the fans who tired of the static portrait that Kovalev drew in the nation's capital, his production half of what they expected. A February deadline deal in 2011 back to Pittsburgh didn't revive his scoring touch.

And then he was gone.

But not before he flew down to Florida -- in his own plane -- to meet with Tallon and Santos in the summer of 2011. Things didn't work out and Kovalev signed in Russia. But everyone kept in touch and as the lockout ended a few weeks ago, the invitation was renewed.

"When I look for players," Santos says, "I look for character and part of that is intelligence. I've got to believe he's a highly intelligent guy and unusual. He taught himself to fly a plane and earn a pilot's license -- and he did it over here, not in Russia. He had to read all those manuals in English. This is a special person. "

Kovalav also is, by all accounts, an accomplished jazz musician. "That intelligence is ultimately why he can be such a good resource and influence for our younger guys," Santos maintains.

"This is the role we talked about a year ago," Santos said. "And this is what he wanted, which was perfect. He wants to play, he wants to contribute, but he also knows he can pass along everything that he's learned, all his experience, to these young guys. I get the impression that's what important to him now."

"I still love this game, that's why I'm still playing," Kovalev said. "I still love the idea of winning, celebration, traveling, being with your teammates."

That's the only magic Alex Kovalev needs.

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