At the 2000 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Timmins, Ont., Kovalchuk skated to center ice after each goal he scored and held up one, two or three fingers to signal how many he had tallied that game. (He had a total of four during the tournament.) He once celebrated before scoring, taking his left hand off the stick and pumping his fist before sliding in an empty-netter against Canada during the 2001 world junior championship. "I have never seen anything like him in my life," Thrashers teammate Slava Kozlov says. "Sometimes I have to tell him he didn't just win the Stanley Cup."
Histrionics aside, Kovalchuk's talent is undeniable. Blue Jackets coach and general manager Doug MacLean calls him "the Bobby Hull of this era." Hartley says Kovalchuk is "the No. 1 attraction in the NHL," only a mild exaggeration for a sniper who has the unusual ability to shoot at top speed without having to glide the final two strides to tee up the puck.
Hartley has piled responsibility on Kovalchuk this season, playing him the full two minutes on the power play, using him to kill penalties, keeping him on for double shifts, even sending him out to defend leads late in games. That represents a considerable leap of faith. The coach and player struck a deal in the preseason: Hartley would increase Kovalchuk's ice time if Kovalchuk played hard in all three zones and on both sides of the puck.
For the most part Kovalchuk has held up his end of the bargain. Although he still needs to smother his one-on-five impulses, he never takes a shift off, and his defense has improved from nonexistent to merely negligent. "He's backchecking more," assistant coach Brad McCrimmon says, "and we've got videotape to prove it." Kovalchuk has also become a team leader, organizing a Thrashers dinner at Morton's last Thursday in Columbus and picking up the tab, a gesture that speaks less to the $4 million he will earn this season than to his growing stature.
"Ilya came back a different person this year," says general manager Don Waddell. "He was in tremendous condition"—the 6'1" Kovalchuk reported to training camp 15 pounds lighter, at 220, with only 8.5% body fat—"and you could see he was more mature. He's a 20-year-old who's starting to grow up. The tragic accident has put him in the spotlight. But even if it hadn't happened, I think his maturity level would be high. I don't think that had anything to do with the accident."
The crash is the prism through which everything in Atlanta—even the emergence of the NHL's most exciting and excitable player—is seen now. But Kovalchuk, who scored his 13th goal in 15 games last Saturday in a 4-3 road win over the New York Islanders, has been as remarkable in his way as Dan Snyder's relatives have been in theirs. In a depressing autumn a family's compassion and the flair of hockey's latest sensation have been welcome rays of sunshine.