In Pittsburgh things do not always have to be accomplished in a New York minute. The Eurocentric Penguins have a loose group because management usually allows players to find their own comfort level by letting them be creative on the ice. A liberated Kovalev, who was shipped to Pittsburgh in November 1998 for center Petr Nedved, ultimately became a point-a-game player. Through Sunday he had 322 points in 320 career matches with the Penguins.
While those numbers qualify Kovalev for stardom in the Dead Puck Era, Lemieux matter-of-factly notes that his teammate's stats "aren't great" for a player so gifted. Kovalev's effort is beyond reproach; he consistently is the last player to leave the ice after practice, a lifelong habit. As teenagers with Dynamo Moscow, Kovalev and Islanders center Alexei Yashin would slip out of the dormitory, grab keys to the rink and play shinny late into the night. Kovalev often would tug on goaltender's gear and play in the cage to develop a better feel for what a netminder could and couldn't stop.
"He's so analytical," Penguins center Kent Manderville says. "He's out there after practice working on one-timers from the point"—Kovalev is the rare NHL forward who quarterbacks the power play—"and talking about keeping square to the pass and not opening up the hips so you can come through quicker. Almost like a golf pro." Kovalev, in fact, won the club championship last summer at Willow Ridge Country Club in Harrison, N.Y., beating men who, he says, "got nervous because they aren't pro athletes. I'm used to pressure."
Kovalev's interest in golf was piqued at his first NHL training camp, in 1992, when he saw New York forward Joe Kocur hit a drive from his knees during a Rangers outing. The only language Kovalev shared with Kocur at the time was athleticism, but one year later Kovalev showed off the same trick shot to delighted teammates. "My life can't just get stuck on hockey," Kovalev says. "I've always been interested in everything, and I want to learn."
When his fingers proved too thick to pluck guitar strings, Kovalev took up the saxophone, which he learned from a Russian jazzman named Igor But man in New York City. Kovalev also became a pilot after a friend took him on a low-altitude flight over Manhattan six years ago. Now Kovalev, who logs 90 to 100 hours of flying time per year, owns a six-seat Cessna 414. That proved handy in early October, when he dropped off prospect Konstantin Koltsov with the Penguins' farm team in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., while en route to New York to help move his wife, Eugeni, and infant son, Nikita, to Pittsburgh for the season.
The next big move for the 29-year-old Kovalev, who is earning $4.6 million this season, could be out of Pittsburgh. He has arbitration rights next season and the presumed bonanza of unrestricted free agency in 2004. Fleeing the artists' colony in Pittsburgh might be lousy for his career—he won't ride shotgun for Lemieux or have the same degree of freedom in another system—but he would undoubtedly become the best-paid freelancer in history.
"As players we learn a lot about the game and ourselves as we progress through our careers," says Manderville. "For Alexei it's a much more pronounced education because of his skill. In the final part of last year, with Mario out [with a hip injury], the team relied on Alexei heavily to produce. He did. And he definitely has another level beyond that. Certainly there's a fire in his eyes."
That is either fire or the glimmer of an idea for his next suitable-for-framing star turn. He was watching a tape of his old goals recently and saw a wraparound move in which he came down the left side handling the puck on his forehand and circled the net. He figures that the next time, instead of trying to stuff the puck inside the post, he'll keep going, keep drifting, keep patient and, poof, top-shelf. Coming soon to an 18,000-seat frozen pond near you.