Alexei Kovalev is the wile E. Coyote of the NHL playoffs. Slash him or elbow him or drop an anvil on his head, and Kovalev, a New York Ranger forward, keeps coming back for more with a cartoonlike resilience. He ranked eighth among playoff scorers through Sunday, but he was the undisputed leader in near-death experiences.
This couldn't be an act, Alex, could it?
"When something is done to me, the ref can stand in front of me and say I'm lying," Kovalev says. "But when I do something, the refs see everything. What would have happened if it was me doing the elbowing or slashing? People would be talking about Russians doing this, Russians doing that."
These days hockey people are talking a lot about Russians, who so far have done plenty in the postseason. Pavel Bure, who at week's end was tied for the league lead with eight playoff goals, scored twice in Game 7 last Friday as the Vancouver Canucks eliminated the St. Louis Blues. Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov assisted on the winning goal in double overtime in the San Jose Sharks' surprising Game 7 victory over the Calgary Flames. The Detroit Red Wings, the Stanley Cup favorites, have four prominent Russians, including Sergei Fedorov, their most dangerous forward, who had a goal and three assists on Sunday. The defending Cup champion Rangers also play four Russians, among them Kovalev and his linemate Sergei Nemchinov. In the first round those two players combined for 17 points in six games as New York dispatched the favored Quebec Nordiques four games to two.
The question, however, is not whether Russians rule but if there are Russian rules: Is there a different set of standards for a group of players who constitute roughly 10% of the league population?
Six years after the first wave of Russian hockey emigration, North American resentment over the loss of jobs to citizens of the erstwhile Evil Empire has mellowed into acceptance of the fact that the best hockey league in the world should have the best players. The Russians have contributed mightily to the NHL, not only filling manpower needs of a league that has expanded to 26 teams but also adding some flash that could be sold to TV networks like Fox. "We have brought," says Kovalev, groping for the word, "style."
Style has been only part of the contribution. Last year Bure led playoff goal scorers, with 16, and Kovalev, Nemchinov, Alexander Karpovtsev and Sergei Zubov became the first Russians to have their names inscribed on the Stanley Cup. Shouldn't those accomplishments have dispelled NHL tribal attitudes that Russian players are soft and can be run out of the rink at crunch time? Shouldn't they have provided the Russians entree into the fraternity? But the nightly initiations continue, with Russians getting the long end of the stick from opponents while suspecting they are getting the short end of the stick from the officials. "Even our coaching staff tells us about certain referees, that they don't like Russians," says Fedorov.
"People still ask if Russians are willing to pay the price," says the Rangers' first-year coach, Colin Campbell. "They don't say that about Swedes anymore. Maybe the Samuelssons in Pittsburgh [defensemen Kjell and Ulf] changed that attitude about Swedes, but now you hear the same knock on Russians. They get painted by a broad brush. Sometimes with a roller. No question, the Russians get tagged."
By elbows. By sticks. "They're still targeted," says New York defenseman Kevin Lowe, who has played on six Stanley Cup winners. "Of course, you run over anyone during the playoffs, but the feeling is that they haven't played hundreds of playoff games, so they might not know how to survive." Kovalev was given a particularly rough ride by Quebec. He was elbowed in the head by Wendel Clark in Game 2—the blow went unpenalized, but Clark subsequently was fined $1,000—and was slashed on the arm by Clark in Game 3, two code-red incidents from which Kovalev recovered splendidly. He finished the series with four goals and five assists.
But for all the impressive performances by the Russians in the playoffs, no impression was as significant as the six-inch welt left on Kovalev's back in Game 4 against the Nordiques. With the Rangers on a power play in the Quebec zone in the last minute of the first period, Nordique defenseman Craig Wolanin cracked Kovalev across the numbers with the heel of his stick. Kovalev crumpled as if he had been hit by sniper fire. Referee Andy Van Hellemond missed the one-handed slash, but the six-foot, 200-pound Kovalev stretched out on the ice was too obvious to ignore. As he skated past, Van Hellemond hissed, "Get up."