A little more than 10 years later, the three-time NHL All-Star is now hoping to fulfill a childhood dream of helping his current team, the New Jersey Devils, win a Stanley Cup. Kovalchuk's Devils play host to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS) at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
During his draft year, Kovalchuk could hardly put three words together in English, but boy could he make an impression with that infectious personality.
"It's the only time in our history that we flew a player in to Atlanta to meet with him before the Draft," Marr said. "Normally, we did it at the Combine. Our Russian translator [Evgeny Bogdanovich] was there and one of our scouts asked the question, 'What do you do when you go through a scoring slump and how do you get yourself out of it?'
"Evgeny asked the question and Kovy responded. There was a lot of laughter and then the translator said, 'He said he's never had a slump.'
Kovalchuk would later ask the group, 'Who's driving the white Corvette in the front of the building, because I'd like to take it for a ride.'
Honestly, who else would have the courage to make such an inquiry? The sports car was Waddell's and the GM actually did allow Kovalchuk to drive him to dinner that night, although it's unknown whether or not the big Russian understood any of the traffic signs.
"People were looking for negatives on Ilya that just weren't there," Marr said. "It's unfair to expect an 18-year-old to join an NHL team and carry that team on his shoulders -- even if you’re the first overall pick and possess that ability. Unfortunately, that goes with the territory, but Ilya handled himself well within the team environment.
"He wasn't comfortable outside of that environment because he was in a new country, on a new team and in a new League. People like to give labels, but internally, he was the guy who with the twinkle in his eye whenever he saw you, and he'd go out of his way to say 'Hello' if he hasn't seen you in a while."
Kovalchuk spent seven-plus seasons with the Thrashers before being traded to the Devils near the 2010 Trade Deadline. He signed a long-term deal with New Jersey on Sept. 4, 2010. Prior to joining New Jersey, his resume included just four playoff games and two points. During this season's remarkable postseason push, Kovalchuk has seven goals and 18 points in 17 matches.
Marr, who was named director of Central Scouting in October, said Kovalchuk has -- and always will be -- a family-first guy. And that's just fine because he exudes an incredible passion and grit on the ice.
"I'm happy for him. He has a real passion for the game, loves it and loves to score and win. The only difference now is, he's on a stage where he gets to do all three." -- Director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr on Ilya Kovalchuk
"Kovy puts pressure on himself to perform," Marr said. "He wasn't happy if he wasn't performing well. I think he handled the adversity [in Atlanta] as well as anybody of that caliber of player of that age."
Marr recalls there being several trade offers to Atlanta for the No. 1 choice prior to the '01 Draft.
"There was lots of talk about trading the top pick overall that year," Marr said. "There was also concern about drafting Russians high, but he wanted it to be known that he was coming over and playing for Atlanta.
"When we were in Florida for the Draft, I remember Kovalchuk was coming over to meet our management team. I went down to the lobby to meet him, got on the elevator but he didn't let his agent on. The elevator door closed and while we rode up together, he just wanted to make sure that we knew he didn't want Atlanta to trade the pick. He wanted to come to Atlanta and play."
Kovalchuk will enter the best-of-seven series against the Kings having produced one goal and five points in his past three games.
"I'm happy for him," Marr said. "He has a real passion for the game, loves it and loves to score and win. The only difference now is, he's on a stage where he gets to do all three."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale