Atlanta coach Bob Hartley stood in the center of the Thrashers' dressing room shortly before 7 p.m. last Friday and ticked off the starters for that night's road game against the Columbus Blue jackets: Byron Dafoe in goal; Chris Tamer and Yannick Tremblay on defense; Shawn McEachern, Randy Robitaille and, yes, Ilya Kovalchuk up front. Not that it should have mattered to Kovalchuk, considering that he had scored more goals, tallied more points, taken more shots and averaged more minutes than any other NHL forward at that point in the season, but when he heard his name called, he smiled broadly and said, "Great lineup." This is a regular routine. On the nights the coach chooses another line to start, the 20-year-old left wing shakes his head theatrically and says, "Awful, awful."
Says Hartley, "The guys always get a big laugh out of it."
No team is more in need of laughs than the Thrashers. Theirs is the most extraordinary story in hockey this season, not only because the perennial losers were 7-4-3-1 and one point from the top spot in the Eastern Conference at week's end, but also because they have won in the aftermath of the tragic death of forward Dan Snyder and the crippling injuries suffered by star wing Dany Heatley in an automobile accident on Sept. 29.
Snyder, 25, a hard-edged, modestly talented center, was a passenger in Heatley's Ferrari when the car veered off a winding road in Atlanta, at about 80 mph, some 45 mph over the speed limit. The two teammates were returning to Heatley's home after grabbing a quick bite following a meet-and-greet with Thrashers season-ticket holders. Snyder died six days later from massive brain injuries. The 22-year-old Heatley, who scored five goals in the All-Star Game last season, sustained torn right knee ligaments and a broken jaw. On crutches, he attended Snyder's funeral in Elmira, Ont., on Oct. 10. Snyder's parents, Graham and LuAnn, scheduled the ceremony then to allow the team, which had a day off between games, to attend. As Graham explained by telephone last Friday, "We know teammates are family. For the last eight years Dan would be home one or two months in the summer. The rest of the time he was with his hockey family."
The Snyders did not forgive Heatley—who was charged with felony vehicular homicide and four misdemeanors and faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted—because to do so would imply that there was something to forgive. Rather, Graham granted Heatley absolution. "That comes from knowing our son very well," Graham says. "He sought out good people. Dany Heatley was his friend and a good person. We don't suspect recklessness. From our standpoint, there wasn't a recklessness of spirit."
"During the funeral Jake [ Dan Snyder's brother] said that with Dan gone, Dany would be his brother," says McEachern, the Thrashers' captain. "I think the biggest impact on the team is how the Snyders wanted us to keep playing and to play hard, like Dan would have wanted."
Heatley's emergence as one of hockey's best two-way players last season overshadowed the play of Kovalchuk, who scored an unsung 38 goals, seventh best in the NHL. But in the wake of the accident Kovalchuk's game has changed, and the spotlight has turned on him. With Heatley out of the lineup indefinitely—he may return later this season if he's not convicted and if his injuries heal as expected—Kovalchuk has played important minutes, moved from the left half-boards to the point on the power play and played with presence. "Making the playoffs is the most important thing," Kovalchuk, a Russian who was the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft, says through an interpreter, "but with all the ice time I get now, I might score 50 goals."
The question is, Which will be more entertaining: watching Kovalchuk score 50 goals or watching him celebrate 50 times? Kovalchuk, who led the NHL with 13 goals and 21 points through Sunday, must have missed the meeting in which hockey players were ordered not to get too high or too low. He might have been washing his hair when they distributed the memo that said players must always react with equanimity. "He's either laughing or he's pissed," Hartley says of Kovalchuk's moods. "His passion gauge explodes every game."
In today's white-bread NHL anyone who samples an After Eight dinner mint at 7:30 can pass for flamboyant, but Kovalchuk skates a fine line between excitable and egocentric. No one, it seems, enjoys anything as much as Kovalchuk enjoys scoring. Every goal is Christmas morning to him. After each whistling one-timer or goalie-beating shake 'n' bake, you expect the refs to wheel a shiny new bike onto the ice and award it to him. Kovalchuk erupts in a paroxysm of joy, fist pumping, grin lopsided. In formal interviews he is stiff and programmed and says all the right things, but on the ice his body language is far more quotable.
Kovalchuk angered the Nashville Predators last month when he skated by their bench and rejoiced after scoring an empty-net goal to complete a hat trick. However, the Predators were not nearly as upset as the Edmonton Oilers were two seasons ago when Kovalchuk, then a rookie, buzzed their bench and taunted them when he scored seconds after serving a penalty for using an illegal stick.