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Kovalev finally attains a spot among the best

Saturday, February 03, 2001

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

DENVER -- Today, for the first time in his NHL career, Alexei Kovalev will belong with the best. He will lace up his skates, strap on his shiny All-Star sweater and practice with the greats of the game before the main event tomorrow.

Former Rangers Coach Mike Keenan on Alexei Kovalev: "I thought he was going to be ... not a star, but a superstar." (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

"I can't wait," he will tell you, beaming like a child. "It probably will remind me of what it was like when I first went to play for my national team. You see all those new faces, all those great players, and you have a chance to meet them. You know them because you play against them all the time, but this is different. It's such a great opportunity, and I've waited such a long time."

So has everyone else.

Nothing less than All-Star stature had been forecast for Kovalev since he was a boy in Russia, outracing his peers to the puck and embarrassing them with his seemingly effortless moves.

Same was true when he arrived in North America to play for the New York Rangers in 1992. No defenseman, no matter how fast or feisty, could slow him down. One on one, then as now, no one was his match.

Mike Keenan, now the head coach of the Boston Bruins, held that post with the Rangers at the time. And he knew.

"I thought he was going to be ... not a star, but a superstar," Keenan said. "His talent base was so rich."

Trouble was, Kovalev needed to harness that talent and channel it. To him, the object of the game appeared to be akin to playing keep-away on a playground, with him brashly daring all five skaters to try to strip him of the puck. And most often, that would cause him to lose sight of the only real goal a hockey player has when controlling the puck, which is to score a goal.

"I could put him into just about any situation," Keenan recalled. "I used him on defense. I used him at any forward position, even center. He could do anything."

Except, it seemed, score.

"Yeah," Keenan said with a deep sigh, "he was a little bit of an enigma at the time."

Keenan's eyes lit up as he recalled the tale of The Shift, one which still gets recanted in awestruck tones by those who witnessed it. Perhaps no moment in Kovalev's career better illustrates how much he has had to grow up to make it to Denver this year.

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One night during Kovalev's sophomore season, he stayed on the ice for more than the 45 seconds Keenan usually likes to get from his players. It was nothing new, actually, as this had started to become a habit. Keenan decided he would do something about it.

"He was coming off the ice, and I said, 'No, stay out there.' " Keenan said. "So, he played some more, then came over to come off again, and I said, 'No, stay out there.' Eight minutes later, now he really wants to come off, and I said, 'No, stay out there.' Then came the end of the period."

Somehow, though, Keenan's signal didn't sink in. It seems Kovalev never got tired. In fact, he was having a blast.

"It's funny how that came across. Alex is out there thinking, 'Boy, this coach really likes me. He's giving me all this extra ice time.' So, when it was over, Mark Messier and Brian Leetch took him aside and explained, 'No, what he's trying to tell you is to come off when you're supposed to come off.' He got the message."

Kovalev can laugh about it now.

"It was really funny, the whole thing," he said. "Both Mike and I were trying to prove something. He wanted to show me how you couldn't keep your shifts too long. And at the same time, I got so mad I wanted to prove that I could play eight minutes without showing that I'm tired. Well, I scored a goal, and I almost scored a second one."

Although he looks like he'd fit right into casting for "Halloween XX", that's really former Boston Bruins' goalie Ron Grahame behind the 1970s-era mask yesterday during practice for tonight's Legends of Hockey game in Denver. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

But goals were few and far between back then. Before this season, Kovalev had never produced more than 26 in a year and annually was dubbed hockey's greatest underachiever.

This year, he is shattering his own statistical marks and nearly all the negative perceptions about him. He already has a personal-best 27 goals to go with 30 assists and ranks eighth in the NHL scoring race. He is fifth in the league with 204 shots and has logged 20 minutes, 45 seconds of ice time per game, second among NHL forwards.

"I thought right from the get-go that he was going to be capable of superstar status, but it took him a while," Keenan said. "That's probably because I think he has reached the maturity level now that he can accept that kind of responsibility."

It came this year, Kovalev explained, because of a new focus.

"The most important thing has been the way I've improved in front of the net. I wouldn't say I changed my style, but I've added some things I've never done before. 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. 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."

Kovalev recognizes that his numbers are on pace to nearly double his career highs in virtually every category, but he bristles at the notion that this is his breakout season.

"It's not like I never had a good season before," he said. "My career's been going up every year. I've been improving every year. That's my goal, not just to have one good season. I'm concentrating on being a more consistent player. I want to be a better player."

He smiled again, thinking back to The Shift.

"Times are changing, I think, and I'm getting a little older. At that time, I wanted to prove who I was. Now, I don't have to prove anything. I just want to play my game."

He paused.

"But you know what? I could still do that, go eight minutes like that. I'm still in great shape."

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