Cameron Brent is the poet laureate of hockey South. She's a
gushing representative of the moon-June-spoon school whose
uncanny ability to rhyme luck with puck resulted in the most
highly touted NHL rookie of the past decade winding up in
Atlanta. This is the story. Last April, Thrashers general manager
Don Waddell, whose rabbit's foot hadn't helped him land the first
pick in the draft lottery in the expansion franchise's first two
tries, e-mailed employees--the 25-year-old Brent's day job is
community-relations coordinator--saying that the staffer who wrote
the most persuasive explanation of why he or she was the luckiest
member of the Thrashers' front office would represent Atlanta at
the lottery in New York City later that month. Brent's doggerel
(sample: I don't need a shamrock or a rabbit's foot for luck/It
means so much more to give an autographed puck) won her the trip.
In New York the Thrashers drew the ball that gave them the No. 1
choice. In June, Waddell used that pick to draft Ilya Kovalchuk,
a spectacular player from Russia.
With the No. 2 selection from 2000, Dany Heatley, Kovalchuk gave
the Thrashers a rare pair of young wings. "This is like when
Quebec had Joe Sakic and then got Peter Forsberg," says Ray
Ferraro, the 37-year-old Atlanta center who's only one year
younger than the combined ages of his occasional wingers. "I'm
not saying these guys are Sakic and Forsberg, but I haven't seen
kids like this in a long time. Certainly not together."
Heatley, an earnest 20-year-old who played two seasons at
Wisconsin, and Kovalchuk, a hot-blooded 18-year-old who played
one season for the Moscow club Spartak, are the world's most
dynamic hockey players under the drinking age. Matching bookends
who play their off wings, they don't have much of a common
vocabulary--Kovalchuk, who speaks limited English, was working
on saying "Sprite, please" and "tiramisu" at lunch one day last
week--but they share the international language of their sport.
They met at a Thrashers rookie camp in Michigan in early
September. Now they're nearly inseparable, linemates and road
roommates and fast friends whose individual success, at least
for the moment, is dependent upon their ability to work
together. Last Friday in San Jose they arrived for the team bus
in lockstep, a scant two minutes early. They were the last
players to clamber aboard, which didn't go unnoticed by Waddell.
"They're rookies," he said. "They should be the first guys on
the bus, not the last."
The just-on-time appearance was a tacit reminder that Kovalchuk
and Heatley are driving Atlanta. Their teammates, proud and
protective of them, understand. Following practice later that
afternoon in Los Angeles, some Thrashers were chatting with
Nelson Emerson and Kelly Buchberger, former teammates now with
the Kings. "Just wait," said a bragging Ferraro, "until you get a
look at these guys."
November 12, 2001
The look at Kovalchuk was abbreviated. The next afternoon he blew
his point coverage on a Los Angeles goal late in the first
period, earning a two-shift tutorial on the bench. His day ended
1:55 into the third period when he couldn't lock up center Eric
Belanger, who scored the third Kings goal in what would be a 4-1
L.A. win. Those benchings were the first of his career. The time
on the pine was agonizing for Kovalchuk, a left wing whose
appetite for the game is so fierce that last month when he was
severely cut around the mouth by a stick in practice, he took six
stitches and hurried back.
There's a clear line of demarcation in Kovalchuk's game between
hockey with the puck and hockey without the puck. He's as
possessive of the puck as a couch potato is of the remote,
passing it only with an air of regret. The love affair was
reflected in the seven goals and no assists he had through Oct.
31, a scoring line that pushed Thrashers television analyst
Darren Eliot to suggest that at 7-0 Kovalchuk was a leading Cy
Young candidate. (He finally got his first assist last Thursday
against the Sharks in San Jose with a deft neutral-zone pass in
traffic that led to a fabulous Heatley goal.)
When Kovalchuk doesn't have the puck and doesn't think he can get
it, he lacks urgency on the offensive end and sloughs off his
defensive duties, like a teenager who can't see the point in
making his bed. The on-off switch is obvious. "He has habits from
other places, and we work with him every day to break those,"
says coach Curt Fraser. "I'm not going to turn this kid into a
third-line checker. As he plays, we can teach him defense."
Kovalchuk has a Pavel Bure-like stride, and he's nearly as quick
as the Florida Panthers' 5'10", 189-pound right wing. But
Kovalchuk is 6'1" and 220, with the ability to go through
defenders almost as easily as he can go around them. In that game
against the Sharks, which Atlanta lost 5-2, he burst down the
left boards midway through the third period, turned accomplished
young defenseman Brad Stuart into a pylon and broke in for a
gilt-edged scoring chance. When Kovalchuk tried a similar move on
B-list defenseman Scott Hannan later in the period, Hannan
stuffed him. The latter foray was an object lesson about the
advantages of using teammates, a reminder to Kovalchuk that he
won't always succeed one-on-one and certainly not one-on-five.
The Thrashers tease Kovalchuk about being a puck hog. "That's
O.K.," a smiling Kovalchuk said in Russian last Friday as
teammate Jiri Slegr served as interpreter. "I don't speak
English." He doesn't lack self-esteem. Many players pump their
fists after a goal. At the world junior championships last
December, Kovalchuk had the time, presence and nerve to pump his
fist before scoring into an empty net against Canada.
Heatley was on that Canadian team. If he was offended by the
showboating, he has filed it. "Europeans have a different way of
celebrating goals," says Heatley, a generalization that seems
true of Kovalchuk, who has used many celebratory moves, including
a bunny hop.
In the NHL universe Heatley is held more accountable than
Kovalchuk, a function of being two years older and having played
college hockey. If Kovalchuk, a high-maintenance player whose
three penalties this season have all been for diving, seems like
an oversized Bure, Heatley resembles a no-maintenance power
forward like the Philadelphia Flyers' John LeClair. At 6'3" and
205 pounds, Heatley is leaner than LeClair, but he has the same
laconic manner and hard shot. The puck that Heatley blew past
Evgeni Nabokov from 35 feet in San Jose bore the signature of a
The eye naturally drifts to Kovalchuk because of the audacity of
his style--"He's magnetic," Ferraro says--but the ice tends to tilt
toward Heatley, who had a point in nine of Atlanta's first 13
games and led the Thrashers with 10. The losses last week in Los
Angeles and San Jose constituted a grim regression to Atlanta's
expansion roots, but Heatley stood out like a diamond in the sky
to Kovalchuk's diamond in the rough.
"You have to be careful with kids not to put too much pressure on
them," Waddell says. "The number many people projected for our
young guys at the start of the year was a combined 30 goals.
Maybe they'll score more. But you can see that in three or four
years, these players can be 100-point guys. We didn't want them
to be our best players right now, but it seems to be happening
The partnership between Heatley and Kovalchuk is ripe with the
possibility of greatness. In the near future the two should
enable the Thrashers to shed their expansion label. Eventually
they could anchor a playoff run, something to be celebrated with
a Stanley couplet.