Atlanta coach Bob Hartley stood in the center of the Thrashers'
dressing room shortly before 7 p.m. last Friday and ticked off
the starters for that night's road game against the Columbus Blue
Jackets: Byron Dafoe in goal; Chris Tamer and Yannick Tremblay on
defense; Shawn McEachern, Randy Robitaille and, yes, Ilya
Kovalchuk up front. Not that it should have mattered to
Kovalchuk, considering that he had scored more goals, tallied
more points, taken more shots and averaged more minutes than any
other NHL forward at that point in the season, but when he heard
his name called, he smiled broadly and said, "Great lineup." This
is a regular routine. On the nights the coach chooses another
line to start, the 20-year-old left wing shakes his head
theatrically and says, "Awful, awful."
Says Hartley, "The guys always get a big laugh out of it."
No team is more in need of laughs than the Thrashers. Theirs is
the most extraordinary story in hockey this season, not only
because the perennial losers were 7-4-3-1 and one point from the
top spot in the Eastern Conference at week's end, but also
because they have won in the aftermath of the tragic death of
forward Dan Snyder and the crippling injuries suffered by star
wing Dany Heatley in an automobile accident on Sept. 29.
Snyder, 25, a hard-edged, modestly talented center, was a
passenger in Heatley's Ferrari when the car veered off a winding
road in Atlanta, at about 80 mph, some 45 mph over the speed
limit. The two teammates were returning to Heatley's home after
grabbing a quick bite following a meet-and-greet with Thrashers
season-ticket holders. Snyder died six days later from massive
brain injuries. The 22-year-old Heatley, who scored five goals in
the All-Star Game last season, sustained torn right knee
ligaments and a broken jaw. On crutches, he attended Snyder's
funeral in Elmira, Ont., on Oct. 10. Snyder's parents, Graham and
LuAnn, scheduled the ceremony then to allow the team, which had a
day off between games, to attend. As Graham explained by
telephone last Friday, "We know teammates are family. For the
last eight years Dan would be home one or two months in the
summer. The rest of the time he was with his hockey family."
The Snyders did not forgive Heatley--who was charged with felony
vehicular homicide and four misdemeanors and faces up to 15 years
in prison if convicted--because to do so would imply that there
was something to forgive. Rather, Graham granted Heatley
absolution. "That comes from knowing our son very well," Graham
says. "He sought out good people. Dany Heatley was his friend and
a good person. We don't suspect recklessness. From our
standpoint, there wasn't a recklessness of spirit."
"During the funeral Jake [Dan Snyder's brother] said that with
Dan gone, Dany would be his brother," says McEachern, the
Thrashers' captain. "I think the biggest impact on the team is
how the Snyders wanted us to keep playing and to play hard, like
Dan would have wanted."
Heatley's emergence as one of hockey's best two-way players last
season overshadowed the play of Kovalchuk, who scored an unsung
38 goals, seventh best in the NHL. But in the wake of the
accident Kovalchuk's game has changed, and the spotlight has
turned on him. With Heatley out of the lineup indefinitely--he
may return later this season if he's not convicted and if his
injuries heal as expected--Kovalchuk has played important
minutes, moved from the left half-boards to the point on the
power play and played with presence. "Making the playoffs is the
most important thing," Kovalchuk, a Russian who was the No. 1
pick in the 2001 draft, says through an interpreter, "but with
all the ice time I get now, I might score 50 goals."
The question is, Which will be more entertaining: watching
Kovalchuk score 50 goals or watching him celebrate 50 times?
Kovalchuk, who led the NHL with 13 goals and 21 points through
Sunday, must have missed the meeting in which hockey players were
ordered not to get too high or too low. He might have been
washing his hair when they distributed the memo that said players
must always react with equanimity. "He's either laughing or he's
pissed," Hartley says of Kovalchuk's moods. "His passion gauge
explodes every game."
In today's white-bread NHL anyone who samples an After Eight
dinner mint at 7:30 can pass for flamboyant, but Kovalchuk skates
a fine line between excitable and egocentric. No one, it seems,
enjoys anything as much as Kovalchuk enjoys scoring. Every goal
is Christmas morning to him. After each whistling one-timer or
goalie-beating shake 'n' bake, you expect the refs to wheel a
shiny new bike onto the ice and award it to him. Kovalchuk erupts
in a paroxysm of joy, fist pumping, grin lopsided. In formal
interviews he is stiff and programmed and says all the right
things, but on the ice his body language is far more quotable.
Kovalchuk angered the Nashville Predators last month when he
skated by their bench and rejoiced after scoring an empty-net
goal to complete a hat trick. However, the Predators were not
nearly as upset as the Edmonton Oilers were two seasons ago when
Kovalchuk, then a rookie, buzzed their bench and taunted them
when he scored seconds after serving a penalty for using an
At the 2000 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Timmins, Ont.,
Kovalchuk skated to center ice after each goal he scored and held
up one, two or three fingers to signal how many he had tallied
that game. (He had a total of four during the tournament.) He
once celebrated before scoring, taking his left hand off the
stick and pumping his fist before sliding in an empty-netter
against Canada during the 2001 world junior championship. "I have
never seen anything like him in my life," Thrashers teammate
Slava Kozlov says. "Sometimes I have to tell him he didn't just
win the Stanley Cup."
Histrionics aside, Kovalchuk's talent is undeniable. Blue Jackets
coach and general manager Doug MacLean calls him "the Bobby Hull
of this era." Hartley says Kovalchuk is "the No. 1 attraction in
the NHL," only a mild exaggeration for a sniper who has the
unusual ability to shoot at top speed without having to glide the
final two strides to tee up the puck.
Hartley has piled responsibility on Kovalchuk this season,
playing him the full two minutes on the power play, using him to
kill penalties, keeping him on for double shifts, even sending
him out to defend leads late in games. That represents a
considerable leap of faith. The coach and player struck a deal in
the preseason: Hartley would increase Kovalchuk's ice time if
Kovalchuk played hard in all three zones and on both sides of the
For the most part Kovalchuk has held up his end of the bargain.
Although he still needs to smother his one-on-five impulses, he
never takes a shift off, and his defense has improved from
nonexistent to merely negligent. "He's backchecking more,"
assistant coach Brad McCrimmon says, "and we've got videotape to
prove it." Kovalchuk has also become a team leader, organizing a
Thrashers dinner at Morton's last Thursday in Columbus and
picking up the tab, a gesture that speaks less to the $4 million
he will earn this season than to his growing stature.
"Ilya came back a different person this year," says general
manager Don Waddell. "He was in tremendous condition"--the 6'1"
Kovalchuk reported to training camp 15 pounds lighter, at 220,
with only 8.5% body fat--"and you could see he was more mature.
He's a 20-year-old who's starting to grow up. The tragic accident
has put him in the spotlight. But even if it hadn't happened, I
think his maturity level would be high. I don't think that had
anything to do with the accident."
The crash is the prism through which everything in Atlanta--even
the emergence of the NHL's most exciting and excitable player--is
seen now. But Kovalchuk, who scored his 13th goal in 15 games
last Saturday in a 4-3 road win over the New York Islanders, has
been as remarkable in his way as Dan Snyder's relatives have been
in theirs. In a depressing autumn a family's compassion and the
flair of hockey's latest sensation have been welcome rays of
The Snyders did not forgive Heatley because to do so would imply
that THERE WAS SOMETHING TO FORGIVE.