Cameron Brent is the poet laureate of hockey South. She's a gushing representative of the moon-June-spoon school whose uncanny ability to rhyme luck with puck resulted in the most highly touted NHL rookie of the past decade winding up in Atlanta. This is the story. Last April, Thrashers general manager Don Waddell, whose rabbit's foot hadn't helped him land the first pick in the draft lottery in the expansion franchise's first two tries, e-mailed employees—the 25-year-old Brent's day job is community-relations coordinator—saying that the staffer who wrote the most persuasive explanation of why he or she was the luckiest member of the Thrashers' front office would represent Atlanta at the lottery in New York City later that month. Brent's doggerel (sample: I don't need a shamrock or a rabbit's foot for luck/It means so much more to give an autographed puck) won her the trip. In New York the Thrashers drew the ball that gave them the No. 1 choice. In June, Waddell used that pick to draft Ilya Kovalchuk, a spectacular player from Russia.
With the No. 2 selection from 2000, Dany Heatley, Kovalchuk gave the Thrashers a rare pair of young wings. "This is like when Quebec had Joe Sakic and then got Peter Forsberg," says Ray Ferraro, the 37-year-old Atlanta center who's only one year younger than the combined ages of his occasional wingers. "I'm not saying these guys are Sakic and Forsberg, but I haven't seen kids like this in a long time. Certainly not together."
Heatley, an earnest 20-year-old who played two seasons at Wisconsin, and Kovalchuk, a hot-blooded 18-year-old who played one season for the Moscow club Spartak, are the world's most dynamic hockey players under the drinking age. Matching bookends who play their off wings, they don't have much of a common vocabulary Kovalchuk, who speaks limited English, was working on saying "Sprite, please" and "tiramisu" at lunch one day last week—but they share the international language of their sport. They met at a Thrashers rookie camp in Michigan in early September. Now they're nearly inseparable, linemates and road roommates and fast friends whose individual success, at least for the moment, is dependent upon their ability to work together. Last Friday in San Jose they arrived for the team bus in lock-step, a scant two minutes early. They were the last players to clamber aboard, which didn't go unnoticed by Waddell. "They're rookies," he said. "They should be the first guys on the bus, not the last."
The just-on-time appearance was a tacit reminder that Kovalchuk and Heatley are driving Atlanta. Their teammates, proud and protective of them, understand. Following practice later that afternoon in Los Angeles, some Thrashers were chatting with Nelson Emerson and Kelly Buchberger, former teammates now with the Kings. "Just wait," said a bragging Ferraro, "until you get a look at these guys."
The look at Kovalchuk was abbreviated. The next afternoon he blew his point coverage on a Los Angeles goal late in the first period, earning a two-shift tutorial on the bench. His day ended 1:55 into the third period when he couldn't lock up center Eric Belanger, who scored the third Kings goal in what would be a 4-1 L.A win. Those benchings were the first of his career. The time on the pine was agonizing for Kovalchuk, a left wing whose appetite for the game is so fierce that last month when he was severely cut around the mouth by a stick in practice, he took six stitches and hurried back.
There's a clear line of demarcation in Kovalchuk's game between hockey with the puck and hockey without the puck. He's as possessive of the puck as a couch potato is of the remote, passing it only with an air of regret. The love affair was reflected in the seven goals and no assists he had through Oct. 31, a scoring line that pushed Thrashers television analyst Darren Eliot to suggest that at 7-0 Kovalchuk was a leading Cy Young candidate. (He finally got his first assist last Thursday against the Sharks in San Jose with a deft neutral-zone pass in traffic that led to a fabulous Heatley goal.)
When Kovalchuk doesn't have the puck and doesn't think he can get it, he lacks urgency on the offensive end and sloughs off his defensive duties, like a teenager who can't see the point in making his bed. The on-off switch is obvious. "He has habits from other places, and we work with him every day to break those," says coach Curt Eraser. "I'm not going to turn this kid into a third-line checker. As he plays, we can teach him defense."
Kovalchuk has a Pavel Bure-like stride, and he's nearly as quick as die Florida Panthers' 5'10", 189-pound right wing. But Kovalchuk is 6'1" and 220, with the ability to go through defenders almost as easily as he can go around them. In that game against the Sharks, which Atlanta lost 5-2, he burst down the left boards midway through the third period, turned accomplished young defenseman Brad Stuart into a pylon and broke in for a gilt-edged scoring chance. When Kovalchuk tried a similar move on B-list defenseman Scott Hannan later in the period, Hannan stuffed him. The latter foray was an object lesson about the advantages of using teammates, a reminder to Kovalchuk that he won't always succeed one-on-one and certainly not one-on-five.
The Thrashers tease Kovalchuk about being a puck hog. "That's O.K.," a smiling Kovalchuk said in Russian last Friday as teammate Jiri Slegr served as interpreter. "I don't speak English." He doesn't lack self-esteem. Many players pump their fists after a goal. At the world junior championships last December, Kovalchuk had the time, presence and nerve to pump his fist before scoring into an empty net against Canada.
Heatley was on that Canadian team. If he was offended by the showboating, he has filed it. "Europeans have a different way of celebrating goals," says Heatley, a generalization that seems true of Kovalchuk, who has used many celebratory moves, including a bunny hop.