Ilya Kovalchuk was born on April 15, 1983 in Tver, Russia, about a two-hour drive from Moscow. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His dad, Valeri, was a basketball star who played for the Soviet national team. Ilya's mother, Luba, worked as a dentist.
Valeri’s father understood as well as anyone the importance that athletics could play in a young man’s life. After his son’s third birthday, he began taking him to the gym, where they would do simple stretching exercises and coordination drills. From his dad, Ilya also learned the value of a positive mental approach in sports.
By age five, Ilya was showing talent in several sports. The elder Kovalchuk didn’t push his son into basketball, but rather let Ilya explore what interested him. He played hoops, soccer and street hockey with other local kids. While watching Ilya dominate his friends one day with a stick and puck, Valeri realized that Ilya had a real future in the sport. He got his son a pair of skates, and Ilya’s ice hockey career was officially underway.
became one of the best young players in Russia as he grew older, but he
never really had aspirations of making it to the NHL. That was until he
saw the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals between Vancouer and New York on Russian television. Countryman Pavel Bure sparkled
for the Canucks. Though they lost to the Rangers, Ilya
began dreaming of following in the Russian Rocket’s footsteps.
Ilya’s intensity sometimes got the best of him. As a teenager, he earned a spot on Russian’s national under-17 squad. In a game against Canada’s Newmarket 87s, he intentionally crashed elbows-first into the opposing bench and then cross-checked goalie Jason Hooper. Newmarket’s players had seen enough, and a huge brawl ensued.
A month later, Ilya demonstrated his value as a scorer when he led the Russians to a gold medal in the World U-17 Challenge. He topped the tournament in scoring with 10 goals and 14 assists in six games. During the championship game against Canada, he was clearly the best player on the ice.
In the spring of 2001, with the NHL draft approaching, the Atlanta Thrashers had a major internal debate on their hands. Possessing the #1 overall pick, the club faced a tough decision between Ilya and Jason Spezza. In Spezza, the Thrashers envisioned a future All-Star who was the ultimate team player and understood every aspect of the game.
They regarded Ilya just as highly—a rare player who could change a game in an instant. Some scouts heralded Ilya as the best prospect since Eric Lindros in 1991. At 6-2 and over 200 pounds, he was big, strong and mean. His ability in open space and in the corners made him a threat everywhere in the offensive zone. Ilya's sparkling performance for Spartak of the Russian League underscored this point. In 64 games, he finished with 57 goals and 28 assists. But the Atlanta front offce worried about his commitment on defense, not to mention his loose-cannon temper.
Spezza’s stock rose during the 2001 World Junior Championships. In leading Canada to the bronze, he scored three goals and added three assists in seven games. Meanwhile, Russia failed to medal, as Ilya tallied six points and racked up 37 penalty minutes. He lost control of his emotions in the closing minutes of his team’s embarrassing 3-2 loss to Switzerland, mixing it up with several Swiss players.
Rumors now ran rampant that Atlanta GM Don Waddell wanted to trade the top pick. The Buffalo Sabres offered young goalie Martin Biron and Michael Peca. The Montreal Canadiens dangled Jose Theodore. The Nashville Predators tried the same thing with their netminder, Mike Dunham.
Before Waddell made a move, he arranged a meeting with Ilya in Atlanta. Was he a guy who would honorably represent the Thrashers? Or was he a headcase who had a lot of growing up to do?
Ilya arrived in Atlanta with an interpreter. Waddell wanted to sit down with the teenager one-on-one, even if he spoke very little English. The GM engineered the meeting on the sly. When the interpreter excused himself to go to the bathroom, Waddell wisked Ilya off to a restaurant, where the Atlanta coaching staff had already gatherd. Within 20 minutes, they were sold on the teenager. Spezza would wind up with the Ottawa Senators, who held the second pick in the draft.
ON THE RISE
Waddell turned down every trade offer before him, and the Thrashers used the #1 selection on Ilya. Next they discussed where he would spend the 2001-02 season. The 18-year-old could either start with Atlanta right away, or he could return to Spartak to finish off the final year of his contract. Waddell feared thrusting Ilya into the NHL, particularly after witnessing the struggles of Patrik Stefan in his first season with the Thrashers two years prior. But he also saw little benefit in sending the rookie back to Russia. The organization ultimately chose to keep Ilya in the U.S.
That meant that Atlanta’s two best hopes heading into the campaign were a pair of rookies, Ilya and 20-year-old Dany Heatley. With little else to root for, Thrashers fans were excited about the young tandem. Their first look at the two came in a six-team prospect tournament in the fall.
Atlanta’s contingent played four games, every one a sellout. Heatley turned the most heads, finishing with six goals and four assists. Ilya was uncharacteristically quiet, raising questions about whether he was ready for the NHL. But he answered his cirtics in the preseason, posting six goals and four assists in six games.
Fans caught a glimpse of Ilya’s notorious temper during a preseason game against the New York Islanders. An innocent scrum after a rough check turned not-so-innocent when Ilya blindsided defenseman Kenny Johnson. He made up for the stupid penalty by emerging from the penalty box, taking in a pass, skating the length of the ice and almost scoring.
With the local media and fans expecting big things from Ilya and Heatley, Atlanta head coach Curt Fraser downplayed their role on the team. He was hesitant to start two rookies on his top line—until they became inseparable friends. The pair hung out together all the time, and Dany ordered for Ilya whenever they went out to eat. Sensing their chemistry, Fraser reasoned that splitting the two would be a mistake.
lya showcased his scoring prowess as the season began, netting seven goals before the end of October. Fraser, meanwhile, tried to emphasize the importance of defense to the rookie. In a game against Los Angeles, Ilya slacked off on his point coverage late in the first period, and the Kings scored a goal as a result. Then, two minutes into the third period, he failed to back-check on center Eric Belanger, who netted the third goal in 4-1 victory by LA Livid with Ilya, Fraser sat him for the remainder of the third period. Ilya got the message, and then worked on limiting his defensive breakdowns. By December, he was at a respectable pus-3.
Other NHL coaches and players were also taking note of Ilya, especially after he scored a goal. His celebrations were sometimes flambouyant and over-the-top. Mike Keenan berated him for disrespecting the game.
Ilya ignored the criticism. By the season’s midpoint, he had 32 points, two behind his buddy Heatley. Their numbers put them in a race for the Calder Cup as the NHL’s top rookie. Both were named to the YoungStars Game during All-Star weekend. Ilya had six goals and an assist and was named MVP.
In mid-February, the NHL halted its season for two weeks for the Olympics in Salt Lake City. Ilya received a big boost when he made the Russian team. Head coach Vyacheslav Fetisov welcomed the 18-year-old by placing him on a line with Detroit Red Wings stars Sergei Fedorov and Igor Larionov, two of Ilya’s idols. He looked right at home, scoring one goal and adding two assists in six games. The Russians went on to beat Belarus in the bronze medal game.
When the NHL season resumed, Ilya and Heatley kept lighting the lamp, but the Thrashers kept losing. No defeat was more devastating lthan the one suffered on March 10 to the New York Islanders. In the game, Ilya went down for the year after dislocating his right shoulder ona hard check on winger Shawn Bates. At the time, his 51 points were among the most by league rookies. Heatley, however, ended with 16 more to clinch the Calder Cup. Still, Ilya led all first-year players with 29 goals.
Heading into the 2002-03 season, the Thrashers—who had finished with the lowest point total in the NHL—had no where to go but up. But management knew that Ilya and Heatley couldn’t do it all. The team needed some seasoned veterans, and Waddell delivered with forwards Slava Kozlov and Shawn McEachern and defenseman Richard Smehilk. Atlanta fans hoped the mix of youth and experience would lift the team from the NHL’s basement.
Ilya opened the season ignoring the defensive aspect of his game, leading to an awful minus-13 rating just a few weeks into the year. Fraser benched him, and the sophomore responded by going even in the next 13 contests. A quarter of the way through the campaign, he had a team-best 12 goals.
Heatley was also playing well, tied for fifth in the league in assists at the All-Star weekend approached. Along with his friend, Ilya was chosen to represent the Thrashers in the game. Heatley stole the spotlight, scoring a record-tying four goals and taking home the MVP award.
After the break, Waddell reassessed his team and determined that Fraser had to go. The Thrashers were again mired in last place, and the GM felt a coaching change was in order. In Fraser’s stead, he hired Bob Hartley, the fiery coach who had led the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup two years earlier.
Hartley set a new tone by hammering home the importance of defense. In practice, he stressed visualization and paid special attention to Ilya. The coach wasn’t shy about gettin on Ilya when he played poorly. At first, Ilya didn’t take well to Hartley’s style. He went eight games without a goal, the longest drought of his career. Hartley then pulled a "Fraser" and sat down Ilya in a 6-4 loss to Minnesota. The two met privately the next day. The air cleared, Ilya posted a plus-3, with two goals and two assists, over the next four games.
Ilya’s improved play helped the Thrashers turn things around down the stretch. Though the playoffs were out of reach, they went 19-14-5-1 under Hartley. Ilya wound up with 38 goals, but his minus-24 spoke just as loudly.
MAKING HIS MARK
to take the Thrashers to the next level suffered a major setback just
before the 2003-04 season started. On September 29, Heatley and Dan Snyder,
Atlanta’s 25-year-old fourth-line center, were involved in a horrific
one-car accident. The impact threw Snyder from the car, bruising his skull.
After six days in a coma, he passed away.
The crash left Heatley with a broken jaw, a bruised lung and torn knee ligaments. He was also an emotional wreck. In all likelihood, Heatley would have to sit out the entire season. Ilya and his teammates were devastated. Hartley admitted that his aquad was not mentally ready to play.
The tragedy was particularly poorly timed because Atlanta appeared ready to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Stefan and Marc Savard were expected to have breakout years, and the Thrashers also figured to have an excellent goalie combination in youngster Pasi Nurminen and veteran Byron Dafoe.
Not having Heatley around meant one thing for Ilya: more responsibility. In the past, Heatley’s strong all-around game opened up the ice, allowing Ilya to focus on scoring. Without his friend, Ilya would have to be better in every phase of his game. Before the season, Ilya and Hartley struck a deal. The coach would increase his ice time if he promised to work hard in all three zones.
Ilya was determined to hold up his end of the bargain. His defense went from virtually nonexistent to serviceable, and he scored 13 goals in the first 15 games. Hartley began using his star for the full two minutes during power plays, double-shifted him at even strength, and even sent him out on the penalty kill. The results were tangible. The Thrashers broke from the gate at 7-4-3-1, good for second in the Southeast Division.
At the end of January, the Thrashers got a welcome surprise. Heatley made his return to the lineup. Though he looked understandably sluggish, his presence lifted the team.
Ilya was among those overjoyed to have Heatley back. By mid-season, he had 26 goals and 57 points. NHL fans rewarded him by voting him to start in the All-Star Game.
As March rolled around, Ilya was leading the league in ice-time among forwards, and his plus/minus rating hovered near minus-10—not great but a vast improvement from previous years. Under Hartley’s tutelage, Ilya was transforming himself from a sharpshooter into an all-around star.
Unfortuantely, Atlanta’s metamorphasis into a playoff team stalled. By April, the Thrashers had dropped below .500, and it appeared that Ilya and his teammates would have to wait another year for their chance to skate on playoff ice. Still, the club finished the season with 78 points, the highest total in franchise history.
TIlya, meanwhile, established himself as an elite player. His 46 assists, 16 power play points, six game-winning goals and 341 shots were all career highs. So were his 41 goals, which tied him with Jarome Iginla and Rich Nash for the league lead.
Ilya continued his maturation process by skating for Russia at the World Cup of Hockey in the summer of 2004. The Russians, beat up and considered long shots, faced the Americans in their first game. In somewhat of a shocker, they manhandled Team USA, 3-1. Russia came back down to earth in its next contest against the high-powered Canadians, losing 3-1. For the second night in a row, Ilya was kept in check.
After a 5-2 win over Slovakia, the Russians earned a rematch with the Americans in the quarterfinals. With the contest tied 2-2 in the third, Ilya went to work. On the power play, he ripped a slap shot past goalie Robert Esche, and then nearly scored again seconds later. Team USA weathered the storm, however, and eliminated Russia, 5-3.
Ilya spent the next year in Russia, as the NHL lockout cancelled the 2004–05 season. He played 53 games for Aks Bar Kazan, joining Heatley, Alexei Kovalev, Vincent Lecavalier and several other NHL players on a supersquad built to win a championship in the team’s 100th season. Ilya scored 19 goals in 53 games, but the team lacked chemistry and finished fourth. He also skated for Khimik Moscow Oblast, scoring eight times in 11 games.
Ilya hit the ice with a vengeance when the NHL resumed play in the fall of 2005. He netted a career-high 52 goals and tied his personal best of 46 assists to lead the Thrashers with 98 points. Atlanta made an all-out play for the postseason, surrounding Ilya with veterans Marian Hossa, Peter Bondra and Bobby Holik. Unofrtunately, injuries to the team’s goaltending—including one in the very first game to young Kari Lehtonen—prevented the Thrashers from piling up the victories. They held their own and finished the season with a franchise-record 41 wins, but that was not good enough for a playoff spot.
Fate was kinder to the Thrashers in 2006–07. They won two more games, a total that landed them in first place in the Southeast Division. Ilya’s point production dropped slightly to 42 goals and 34 assists, and during the season he was accused of playing with an illegal stick. None of these things could mar the pride he felt in getting his team to the playoffs for the first time. That feeling lasted exactly four games, as the Rangers swept the Thrashers in the opening round.
The Thrashers took a step backward in 2007–08, tumbling into the division cellar. Ilya scored 52 times for the second time in three seasons, accounting for nearly a quarter of the team’s goals. He earned kudos for more than his scoring. Thanks to the constant pushing of Hartley, Ilya had become a much better two-way player. When the coach was canned after an 0–6 start, Ilya lost a mentor who helped him become a primetime palyer.
After the season, Holik returned to the New Jersey Devils and, at the request of his teammates, Ilya replaced him as team captain. At the time, rumors were swirling that he might be traded. His contract was due to expire at the end of the following year, and the Thrashers weren’t likely to re-sign him.
Ilya shouldered his new responsibility like a pro, recording his fifth straight 40-goal campaign, finishing with 43. He added 48 assists for a total of 91 points. Unfortunately, Atlanta’s record barely improved, and the Thrashers missed the playoffs again in 2008–09.
The 2009–10 season would be Ilya’s last in an Atlanta uniform. It was also his most painful. Early in the season, he broke a bone in his foot blocking a shot and missed a chunk of time. The Thrashers, meanwhile, were havoring around .500 and did not appear headed for the postseason. The turn of events no doubt influenced Ilya’s decision to reject the team’s last-ditch offer of a contract extension. The salary being discussed was in the neighborhood of $10 million a season.
In early February, the Thrashers found a new home for Ilya, shipping him to New Jersey in exchange for Johnny Oduya, prospects Patrice Cormier and Niclas Bergfors, and a first-round draft pick. Teammate Anssi Salmela also swapped uniforms.
Ilya made good in his Devils debut, contributing a pair of assists to a 4–3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. He finished the year with 41 goals and 44 assists—including 27 points in his 27 games as a Devil. In the playoffs, New Jersey was upended by the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. Devils fans were livid. Ilya was one of the few productive players for New Jersey, with two goals and four assists.
A free agent, Ilya was happy to remain with the Devils. When the team offered a 17-year deal worth $102 million, he was ready to sign. The NHL stepped in, however, ruling that the deal violated the salary cap structure. Ilya had to look elsewhere.
Ilya has proven in the past that he will do whatever it takes to make himself and his team better. As far as his future is concerned, he must prove he can carry his club through tough postseason series. So far, that is all that’s missing from his NHL résumé.
ILYA THE PLAYER
Ilya is a nightmare to defend. He has the speed to explode in the open ice. He has the stickhandling to swerve around opponents. And few NHL left wings have ever been as good at finishing plays.
When Ilya entered the NHL as an 18-year-old rookie, some feared his unpredictable temper and cocky attitude spelled trouble. But he has silenced his critics. He has scored his share of goals—over 300 so far. But it’s been the development of his all-around game that has been most impressive. He is a solid defender and a player who knows how to create opportunities for his teammates.
When Kurt Fraser benched Ilya because of poor two-way play, Ilya made himself a better defender. When Bob Hartley challenged him to focus on more than just scoring, he became the point man on the power play, a key contributor on the penalty kill and the league’s leader in ice-time among forwards. In other words, he's willing to work hard to improve and expand his game.
Once an immature scorer with little understanding of the game as a whole, Ilya has shed that image. Though still considered an elite sniper, he has become so much more. The only thing left for him to prove is whether he can produce in the playoffs.
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