After 24 years of confusing the hell out of everybody that gets paid to write about and analyze hockey for a living, Alex Kovalev, who popularized the use of the descriptive slur "enigmatic," is ending his career as a professional hockey player. For someone who sure didn't care too much about hockey or trying too hard, 24 seasons, a Stanley Cup, and Olympic Gold Medal and over 1,000 career NHL points is pretty damn impressive.
Questioning a player's work ethic is an easy way to explaining what's often hard to understand. That's what made Kovalev the enigma, nobody really understood his game. Some shifts, it looked like he was orchestrating a circus routine where clowns chase something falling over each other. Other times, you didn't notice him on the ice. What was Kovalev?
The answer is a very talented hockey player of course, but it's not that simple. He obviously cared deeply about hockey, playing it professionally for 24 years with injuries ultimately fraying the twine that held his career together.
"I'd have loved to play until I'm 50 but the injuries from the last few seasons don't let me continue my career," Kovalev said to Kanal9 a television station from Leukerbad, Switzerland. "It's a hard decision for me but it is what it is. It was my last season."
Kovalev was the first player I ever watched just to watch, regardless of the team. I grew up in New Jersey, with my father, a vehement New York Rangers fan, right at the time both the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils became powerhouse teams, the mid-1990s. Kovalev left an impression that none of the other greats from that time left. He was a rock star with his long blonde hair and an on-ice style comparable to no other player in the league. He was fast, he was skilled and he could skate through an entire team.
At that time, in the greater New York City area, you had Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Scott Stevens, Martin Brodeur and Scott Niedermayer. These were the grand titans of the sport, champions whose names would one day hang from the rafters of their respective arenas for generations of fans to see. Kids will one day ask their grandfathers about those names, but Kovalev, he'll be forgotten. He never belonged to any fanbase, he belonged to hockey fans as a whole.
Kovalev doesn't get nearly enough credit for the Rangers the Stanley Cup in 1994, the franchise's first post World War II. That year, he registered 21 points in 23 games and was an important cog on a very talented team.
It stands to reason, that, as someone who has been around his fair share of all-time great hockey players inside Madison Square Garden, nobody gave me the chills like seeing Kovalev. None of the names in the rafters at either Madison Square Garden or Prudential Center have had any sort of really effect on me. Seeing Kovalev, during the Rangers run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final brought back special memories of watching Kovalev when he was first with the Rangers, then onto the Pittsburgh Penguins and even through his time with Montreal. He was truly a special, rare talent in the league.
There's no use trying to figure why he potentially underachieved. Maybe we didn't have the tools to evaluate consistency at that time, but, from a young fans eye, it didn't seem like he gave 100 percent on every shift. It's always tough to speculate on something unquantifiable, but in the end, it shouldn't matter. Because if Kovalev was giving 50 percent, it was better than your average player giving it 100 percent.
Kovalev help pave the way for Russian athletes to find a home in the United States. He was among the first group of Russian players to have his name on the Stanley Cup, along with the late Alexander Karpovtsev, Sergei Nemchinov and Sergei Zubov. He wasn't the first Russian player to set that path, but to think of what it took to move to a complete foreign country, who didn't historically have the most comfortable relations with your homeland, at such a young age? Kovalev was still a teenger when he first laced up the skates and donned a blue sweater for the New York Rangers.
Yes still, he did it with tremendous talent and it didn't impact his presence on the ice, which was at all time extremely dangerous. He could change games in one shift. And yet still, generations of Russian athletes will be pegged as enigmatic because they don't come from a dairy farm in northern Alberta, Canada. It seems almost unfair.
The end of his NHL career was unceremonious. He played a handful of games under the Florida sun with the Panthers, before announcing his retirement from the NHL in 2013. Even then, Kovalev wasn't ready to let go of the game he loved, according to a report from Montreal Gazette.
He told them, retirement wasn't exactly his decision, despite Dale Tallon, the Panthers General Manager originally saying the split was a "mutual agreement."
"I didn't have a choice. That's what has kind of been the frustrating part," said Kovalev.
"Started the season good and everything was going well and, all of a sudden, they started pushing me away," Kovalev told Montreal Gazette. "And I just never understood the idea and what exactly happened. They never really explained to me—the things they've been telling me, just didn't really make sense."
Quietly, one of the most talented players to grace the league was gone at he was turning 40 years old.
Kovalev should be in the hockey hall of fame the second he's eligible. That shrine was built for players like Kovalev, transcendent players. Kovalev was just that and more, always a pleasure to watch. While his case may not be as clear cut to others, it certainly is to someone who grew up watching him barreling through a barrage of defense and finishing of a play with the touch of a skilled artisan.