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The image is seared into the minds of many Canadians who were watching the 2001 world junior championships in Moscow: a young Russian whirring down upon the empty Team Canada net, thrusting his right fist high into the air twice before scoring to seal a 3--1 victory for his country. The match was relatively meaningless, an early round-robin meeting, but Kovalchuk has yet to live down that hotdogging gesture.
"A lot of people thought maybe he was showboating," says Waddell, "but I've got to be honest with you: Once you sit with him and talk to him, [you realize] his passion for winning is much greater than people would expect it to be.... I don't think it was showboating as much as being very, very pleased to beat a very, very good Canada team."
Kovalchuk is not the same player or same person he was when he broke into the NHL less than a year after his notorious empty-netter. He still plays with emotion, he says, but there is a maturity to him now. A father of three, he's quick to note that he is not a kid anymore. "[My father] was the leader of my family," he says. "He would take care of everybody. [When he died], that's when I really had a different look on everything."
Valeri Kovalchuk was a basketball player in the Soviet Union, but his heart was in hockey. He owned a little sporting-goods store in Tver, a small city some 90 miles northwest of Moscow, and instilled in his children a strong work ethic. Ilya's sister, Arina, is a lawyer. Valeri would show Ilya old videos of the 1972 Summit Series between the Soviet Union and Canada and encourage him to practice. He helped the boy hone the thunder-and-lightning wrist shot that former Devils assistant coach Mario Tremblay says is like Canadiens legend Yvan Cournoyer's—"except even better."
When Valeri died in 2006, Ilya embraced the role of the head of his family—not just for his wife and newborn daughter but also for his mother and sister. "He's a very, very caring individual," says former Atlanta coach Bob Hartley. When the Thrashers' tailor would come to fit players for custom suits, Kovalchuk would remind him not to forget the trainers—billed to number 17. He'd offer rookies or call-ups the keys to his extra car to use while they were in Atlanta, and he took great pleasure in bestowing gifts on his friends, from good meals to flight vouchers he earned as part of a sponsorship agreement.
"He's a great guy," says Penguins winger and Russian national team linemate Evgeni Malkin. "If you need help, every time [he will] help.... And Russia loves him."
Why wouldn't it? When the national team calls, Kovalchuk always answers—and on the first ring. He was the first Russian star to agree to play in the world championships last spring, even though he had just finished a grueling season that included the Vancouver Olympics. Kovalchuk has captained back-to-back world championship teams, scoring the gold-medal-winning goal in overtime in 2008 and being named tournament MVP in 2009.
He burns to leave a similar legacy in the NHL. His next goal is to win a Stanley Cup. That's why he signed with New Jersey, where the model trophies in the dressing room are a reminder that this team knows how to win it all and where Kovalchuk can shed the disappointments of the past—Atlanta played in only four postseason games during his 10 years there, and lost them all—and prove his worth. When he arrived last February, he made a point of telling the press that he was +1 for the season.
Still, says Tremblay, Kovalchuk continues to struggle with the same problem he had with the Thrashers: "When things are not going well for the team, he has a tendency to do everything by himself." That isn't necessary in New Jersey, a much stronger all-around team, but "it takes time to change," Tremblay says. "I think Kovy is an intelligent person, and he's going to get that."
His teammates are working on it, too. "It was tough last [spring], getting him acclimated," says Parise. "You don't really [do much practicing] at that time of year. You throw him in, and there's just such high expectations. And in certain areas we were probably trying to force it to him."