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Kovalchuk made impact on and off the ice in Atlanta

by John Manasso
ATLANTA -- Since arriving in Atlanta in October 2001, Ilya Kovalchuk has been one of the NHL's most productive players and colorful personalities.

Kovalchuk played for the expansion Thrashers for eight seasons before being traded to New Jersey on Thursday. He is the franchise's all-time leader in games (594), points (615), goals (328), assists (287), game-winning goals (40), power-play goals (115), power-play points (243) and shots (2,178). Since entering the NHL, he has scored more goals and power-play goals than any NHL player over that period. He also is on a pace for a sixth straight 40-goal season – the only player to do so over that span.

Kovalchuk is a three-time All-Star and is about to become a three-time Olympian for Russia. He also competed for Russia at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. In 2003-04, he shared the Rocket Richard Trophy for leading the NHL in goals with 41.

Of Kovalchuk, Elmer Ferguson Award-winning writer Michael Farber wrote in 2003: "The question is, Which will be more entertaining: watching Kovalchuk score 50 goals or watching him celebrate 50 times?"

Here is a look at some of the most memorable moments of his career:

April 10, 2001 -- After twice losing the NHL's draft lottery, Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell elects to sit this one out, sending community relations employee Cameron Brent, who won an office contest for writing the best essay as to "why she felt lucky." Seeded third with only a 14.2 percent chance to win the lottery, the Thrashers did just that and selected Kovalchuk with the No. 1 pick on June 23.

March 10, 2002 -- Kovalchuk had 29 goals and 22 assists in 65 games before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury in a 6-1 loss to the New York Islanders -- ending his bid to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Instead, teammate Dany Heatley wins the Calder with three fewer goals but 16 more points in 17 more games.

Oct. 5, 2003 -- Thrasher Dan Snyder had died of toxic shock at Grady Memorial Hospital, as a result of an infection that had entered his body from injuries suffered in a horrific car crash with Heatley six days earlier. Word had gotten out among the team members, and they began to gather at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital.

Snyder's mother LuAnn recalled seeing a very young-looking Kovalchuk weeping and not recognizing him at first. To try to console him, she said, she offered him a piece of the watch that her son was wearing at the time of the accident. The watch had been severed in several pieces by the violence of the crash. LuAnn Snyder recalled her conversation with Kovalchuk as follows: "It's going to be a hard year. You have to work hard and you have to be a leader. You have to work hard and you have to be a leader. You don't have to play for Dan, but be there for him. He said, 'Yes, I will do this and I will try. I promise.'"

Kovalchuk tied for the NHL lead in goals that season with 41. Before the Thrashers visited the rink that was built in Snyder's hometown of Elmira, Ontario, and named in Snyder's honor, Kovalchuk told this past October, "I think it's important, because Dan, he was a member of our team. He's still a member of our team. He's always going to be with us. When his name is there, it means we're there, too. For us, it's going to be a big deal to see the fans, to see the rink."

Feb. 5, 2004 -- Kovalchuk was voted a starter for the Eastern Conference for the 2004 All-Star Game in St. Paul, Minn., but in the Thrashers' last game before the break he committed a turnover with 5:31 into the second period. The turnover helped turn a 1-0 Thrashers' lead over Philadelphia into a 5-1 loss. Kovalchuk was trying to stickhandle through three Flyers and beat his friend, defenseman Danny Markov -- but Markov stole the puck and turned it into an assist as the Flyers pulled away. Thrashers coach Bob Hartley benched Kovalchuk for the rest of the game.

Despite playing on the 2006-07 Southeast Division champions, Kovalchuk has never finished a season even or better. He was plus-1 when he was traded.

Nov. 11, 2005 -- With huge expectations after signing Bobby Holik, Peter Bondra, Scott Mellanby and Jaroslav Modry through free agency and trading Heatley for Marian Hossa and Greg de Vries, the Thrashers got off to a dreadful start in 2005-06. Kovalchuk missed the first three games because of a contract dispute and started slowly. But on Nov. 11, he broke out with a four-goal game at Philips Arena against the Lightning in a 5-2 win that jump-started both himself and the team towards a better showing.

Jan. 6, 2006 -- In the rookie year of Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, Kovalchuk wanted to show who was boss. Crosby was sent to the box for slashing Kovalchuk and 24 seconds later, Kovalchuk scored on one of his trademark one-timers. Earlier in the game they exchanged slashes and big hits. Kovalchuk pointed at Crosby in the penalty box for the entire Philips Arena crowd to see. A YouTube video of the clip has received more than 350,000 views. (WATCH)

The next night Atlanta went to Pittsburgh, where Kovalchuk was lustily booed, and won again.

Jan. 31, 2006 -- The curve on Kovalchuk's sticks blatantly broke the rules during his first few seasons, and in 2005-06 opposing teams started to call for measurements in the hopes of catching him in the act to earn a power play. He narrowly escaped in a game against Nashville in January 2006 at Philips Arena, as he threw the stick in question to the bench and assistant equipment manager Joey Guilmet ran it down the hallway to the team's locker room. When the officials compelled Guilmet to bring back the stick, he produced one that was legal and, Nashville said, had not been used.

But a few weeks later, in a 5-2 loss to Buffalo on Jan. 31, he was caught red-handed -- and Hartley was furious. To send Kovalchuk a message, he had him practice on the third line. Kovalchuk was the first one off the ice and bolted the practice facility. Later, reached by phone, he claimed all was fine.

Said his friend and teammate Slava Kozlov, "I think he's upset. I like when Kovy's upset. He got benched a few years ago in New Jersey [a day he missed the team bus and was late to the morning skate], and the next game he scored two goals. He's going to recover quick. We're going to support him because he's part of our team."

March 12, 2006 -- Making a furious bid to overcome a bad start and make the playoffs for the first time in team history, the Thrashers won some amazing games down the stretch in the spring of 2006. One of those came at Madison Square Garden -- a venue in which Kovalchuk almost always shines. The Thrashers trailed 2-0 with less than 13 minutes to go in regulation but earned a 3-2 overtime victory thanks to Kovalchuk's tying goal with less than five minutes left. The Rangers had scored the game's first goal after a defensive lapse by Kovalchuk.

About playing on the big stage: "It's New York City. I think everybody likes games here, but my favorite place is still A-T-L. When you play in front of your crowd, there is five times more emotions, and you draw energy from them."

April 6, 2006 -- With six games to go in '05-06, the Thrashers were still in the playoff hunt, but their chances were growing more desperate. They trailed at Tampa Bay when Kovalchuk netted his 50th goal with four seconds left in regulation on a bizarre bouncing shot past Sean Burke. (WATCH) The Thrashers lost in a shootout, missing out on a valuable point against their Southeast Division rivals who eventually beat them out for one of the East's two final playoff spots. The Thrashers missed the playoffs by two points that season, getting eliminated in their second-to-last game of the season.

April 12-18, 2007 -- Making his first and only appearance in the playoffs, Kovalchuk scored one goal and one assist and was minus-1 as Atlanta was swept in four games by the New York Rangers, scoring only six goals in the entire series.

Jan. 27, 2008 -- Again demonstrating his love of the big stage, Kovalchuk put on a show for his hometown fans at Philips Arena during the All-Star Game -- though not by scoring. The Eastern Conference won 8-7 and Kovalchuk had two golden opportunities to score. Western goalie and fellow Russian Evgeni Nabokov robbed Kovalchuk from close range with a glove save in the second period, after which Kovalchuk fell on his back in mock incredulity. (WATCH) A few minutes later, Nabokov robbed him again on a breakaway and, again playing to the crowd, Kovalchuk threw his stick in feigned disgust. Kovalchuk had 18 family members and friends in the stands, including his sister, who made the trip from Russia. He said the experience was "unbelievable."

Feb. 2, 2010 -- Kovalchuk goes minus-1 without a point in 24:52 of ice time in a 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at Philips Arena -- his final game as a Thrasher. Thrashers broadcaster Darren Eliot notes that the final image of Kovalchuk playing at home could be the star's swinging his stick in frustration against the boards after time expired.

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