Alexei Kovalev is the Wile E. Coyote of the NHL playoffs. Slash
him or elbow him or drop an anvil on his head, and Kovalev, a New
York Ranger forward, keeps coming back for more with a cartoonlike
resilience. He ranked eighth among playoff scorers through Sunday,
but he was the undisputed leader in near-death experiences.
This couldn't be an act, Alex, could it?
``When something is done to me, the ref can stand in front of me
and say I'm lying,'' Kovalev says. ``But when I do something, the
refs see everything. What would have happened if it was me doing
the elbowing or slashing? People would be talking about Russians
doing this, Russians doing that.''
These days hockey people are talking a lot about Russians, who so
far have done plenty in the postseason. Pavel Bure, who at week's
end was tied for the league lead with eight playoff goals, scored
twice in Game 7 last Friday as the Vancouver Canucks eliminated
the St. Louis Blues. Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov assisted on
the winning goal in double overtime in the San Jose Sharks'
surprising Game 7 victory over the Calgary Flames. The Detroit Red
Wings, the Stanley Cup favorites, have four prominent Russians,
including Sergei Fedorov, their most dangerous forward, who had a
goal and three assists on Sunday. The defending Cup champion
Rangers also play four Russians, among them Kovalev and his
linemate Sergei Nemchinov. In the first round those two players
combined for 17 points in six games as New York dispatched the
favored Quebec Nordiques four games to two.
The question, however, is not whether Russians rule but if there
are Russian rules: Is there a different set of standards for a
group of players who constitute roughly 10% of the league
Six years after the first wave of Russian hockey emigration, North
American resentment over the loss of jobs to citizens of the
erstwhile Evil Empire has mellowed into acceptance of the fact
that the best hockey league in the world should have the best
players. The Russians have contributed mightily to the NHL, not
only filling manpower needs of a league that has expanded to 26
teams but also adding some flash that could be sold to TV networks
like Fox. ``We have brought,'' says Kovalev, groping for the word,
Style has been only part of the contribution. Last year Bure led
playoff goal scorers, with 16, and Kovalev, Nemchinov, Alexander
Karpovtsev and Sergei Zubov became the first Russians to have
their names inscribed on the Stanley Cup. Shouldn't those
accomplishments have dispelled NHL tribal attitudes that Russian
players are soft and can be run out of the rink at crunch time?
Shouldn't they have provided the Russians entree into the
fraternity? But the nightly initiations continue, with Russians
getting the long end of the stick from opponents while suspecting
they are getting the short end of the stick from the officials.
``Even our coaching staff tells us about certain referees, that
they don't like Russians,'' says Fedorov.
``People still ask if Russians are willing to pay the price,''
says the Rangers' first-year coach, Colin Campbell. ``They don't
say that about Swedes anymore. Maybe the Samuelssons in Pittsburgh
[defensemen Kjell and Ulf] changed that attitude about Swedes, but
now you hear the same knock on Russians. They get painted by a
broad brush. Sometimes with a roller. No question, the Russians
By elbows. By sticks. ``They're still targeted,'' says New York
defenseman Kevin Lowe, who has played on six Stanley Cup winners.
``Of course, you run over anyone during the playoffs, but the
feeling is that they haven't played hundreds of playoff games, so
they might not know how to survive.'' Kovalev was given a
particularly rough ride by Quebec. He was elbowed in the head by
Wendel Clark in Game 2 -- the blow went unpenalized, but Clark
subsequently was fined $1,000 -- and was slashed on the arm by
Clark in Game 3, two code- red incidents from which Kovalev
recovered splendidly. He finished the series with four goals and
But for all the impressive performances by the Russians in the
playoffs, no impression was as significant as the six-inch welt
left on Kovalev's back in Game 4 against the Nordiques. With the
Rangers on a power play in the Quebec zone in the last minute of
the first period, Nordique defenseman Craig Wolanin cracked
Kovalev across the numbers with the heel of his stick. Kovalev
crumpled as if he had been hit by sniper fire. Referee Andy Van
Hellemond missed the one-handed slash, but the six-foot, 200-pound
Kovalev stretched out on the ice was too obvious to ignore. As he
skated past, Van Hellemond hissed, ``Get up.''
Van Hellemond has seen plenty of Kovalev, an electrifying
one-on-one attacker whose best positions are right wing and prone.
Kovalev regularly has turned the Madison Square Garden ice into
Swan Lake, and while Campbell insists Kovalev would never fake an
injury, he concedes that he has occasionally cautioned him against
diving. Van Hellemond, who would have blown the whistle
immediately if he thought Kovalev was seriously hurt, turned his
head twice while following the play to see if anything in
Kovalev's body language was crying wolf. Only after Quebec's Joe
Sakic had skated three zones and fanned on a forehand shot did Van
Hellemond raise the whistle to his lips and prepare to stop play.
Unfortunately, he finally blew the whistle after Sakic scored on a
Van Hellemond conferred with his linesmen and then waved off the
goal that would have given the Nordiques a 3-0 lead. When Kovalev
finally clambered to his skates about four minutes after going
down -- yes, he was hurt, but lying on the ice for four minutes
seemed to be overdoing it -- Clark tapped the ice with his stick
in mock tribute. Kovalev missed just one power-play and one
penalty-killing shift, and he scored a goal and set up one in the
second period. The Rangers won 3-2 in OT to take a
three-games-to-one lead; the league later fined Van Hellemond,
usually a top referee, for a ``glaring error in judgment'' in
disallowing the goal that changed the tenor of the series.
``Diving? There are dozens of North Americans who pull the same
stunt,'' Lowe says. ``The greatest was Bill Barber, and he's in
the Hall of Fame. Derek Sanderson. I've seen Wayne Gretzky do it,
and even [teammate] Mark Messier do it on occasion. When you play
as much one-on-one hockey as Alex does, getting hooked and held,
you'll go down sometimes. But it becomes a reputation thing. They
say that Russians dive, but how can you label everybody one way?
In a sense, that's bigotry.''
Kovalev is the Churchillian Russian, a riddle wrapped in a mystery
inside an enigma, a dancing master on skates who heeds an internal
rhythm. ``Alex is the most Russian of our Russians,'' Campbell
says. ``He's the one who always says, `Well, back in Russia, this
is how we did it.' He doesn't want to beat one guy and give up the
puck. He wants to beat one, two, three guys and then make the
perfect pass. He wants to produce layups.''
Campbell invited Kovalev into his office at the start of the
season and showed him pictures of the Campbell family. ``See
them?'' he asked, pointing to his wife and three chidren. ``If you
don't play well, I get fired.'' Kovalev was nonetheless uninspired
during the regular season, scoring only 13 goals, as the Rangers
limped into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But
against the Nordiques he took a licking and responded with two
goals in the clincher. Kovalev, who scored and set up two of
Messier's goals last year when New York staved off elimination
against the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 of the conference finals,
now has 13 goals and 18 assists in 28 career playoff games. But
instead of being lauded for elevating his play in the postseason,
Kovalev has been assailed for not turning himself into the second
coming of Pittsburgh Penguin star Jaromir Jagr.
Kovalev and Nemchinov may share a line, a language and a passport,
but they hardly seem to come from the same universe. As dramatic
and chatty as Kovalev is, Nemchinov is as stoic and silent, having
earned the nickname Sarge as much for his grit as his first name.
He is acclaimed as the Rangers' toughest player, and on a team
with Messier, that is no small accolade. ``In Game 4, Clark hit
Sarge like nobody's business,'' says Nick Kypreos, the combative
left wing who has been riding shotgun for the Russians since late
in the regular season. ``Sarge comes to the bench, and a minute, a
minute-and-a-half later, blood starts rolling down his nose. He's
there explaining a play to me, what we should have done
differently, and I say, `Sarge, you know you're bleeding?' He
says, `Yeah, but it'll go away.' Sometimes I have to yell at him,
because he's like a bull on skates, and when he does get hooked, a
legitimate infraction, he refuses to go down. Sometimes Sarge
costs us a call.''
You can learn a new language, a new culture, a new style of play,
but how do you learn the Code? How long does it take to grasp the
nuance that demands you do whatever it takes to win yet frowns on
you for taking a dive to give your team a power play? After being
weaned on the Olympics and the world championships, how do you
acquire the Stanley Cup gene that imbues you with a sense that the
NHL trophy is the one true chalice? ``It's been only six years,''
says Detroit defenseman Slava Fetisov, who starred on the
brilliant Red Army teams of the early 1980s. ``Six years, that is
all. In history, that is nothing.''
A lack of enthusiasm for Cup play has been the knock against the
Russians. They gladly will take the big money during the season,
critics say, but with the playoffs paying only modestly -- a
player on a Stanley Cup winner might make a little more than
$2,000 a game over almost two months of work -- they are easily
distracted by visions of summer and a visit home. Bure's
postseason play for Vancouver the last couple of seasons has been
so spectacular, intense and physically courageous that it should
have erased this stereotypical view. During the 1994 Cup finals,
however, stories surfaced that Bure's agent, Ron Salcer, had
threatened to have Bure sit out a game in the first round against
Calgary unless his client received a new contract. Salcer, Bure
and Canuck general manager Pat Quinn denied reports of an
extortion scheme that might have made even the Russian mafia
blush. Bure did get a five-year, $22.5 million deal after those
playoffs, but the rumor that the Russian Rocket had used a playoff
game as leverage offended North American sensibilities.
``People keep asking if I think the Stanley Cup is important,''
Bure says. ``This is my fourth year, and I've said before that the
Olympics used to be more important to me. Now it's the Stanley
Cup. We make big bucks, almost all of us. But we don't play hockey
just because we want to get money. You've got pride, and you like
the sport. Pride is bigger than money.''
The Cup belongs to anyone tough enough to claim it, which the
four Russians proved last June. As the Rangers poured onto the
ice to celebrate the end of a 54-year championship drought,
Kovalev -- born in Togliatti, educated in Moscow -- whooped,
``Now they'll stop saying 1940 to us.''