"When I stepped on the ice for the first time as a Canadien, and the fans rose from their seats and gave me an ovation, that was pretty amazing to get that feeling. It's wonderful to know that your fans respect your skill and the way you play. They see how much hard work you put in to make your team better."
-- Alex Kovalev
is in the Top 20 among active players with 380 goals and 529 assists in 1,119 NHL games. He's won the Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal. He's coming off the second-best season of his likely Hockey Hall of Fame career and he's been named captain of the Eastern Conference All-Star team, as well as being voted a starter for Sunday's All-Star Game (6 p.m. ET, Versus, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio, XM Radio) at the Bell Centre.
"Sometimes, I might be feeling, at a particular time, that I've been lucky lately or unlucky, but if I take the time to look at my whole life and the opportunities and achievements, I know every day isn't going to be perfect, there will be some ups and downs, but overall my life, my hockey career, has been pretty exciting and rewarding," said Kovalev, who also played in the 2001 and 2003 Games.
There is a strong bond between Kovalev and Montreal Canadiens
' fans, who have nicknamed him "L'Artiste," the artist, for his clever stickhandling and skating. He expressed strong feelings about being selected to play in the game that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Canadiens' franchise.
"This is the only way you know the reaction of the fans and the way they appreciate what you do on the ice," Kovalev said. "It is always important. When I stepped on the ice for the first time as a Canadien, and the fans rose from their seats and gave me an ovation, that was pretty amazing to get that feeling. It's wonderful to know that your fans respect your skill and the way you play. They see how much hard work you put in to make your team better."
Kovalev, 35, entered this season off a strong 2007-08 season in which he scored 35 goals and added 49 assists and was named to the NHL Second All-Star Team. More important, he led the Canadiens to the best record in the Eastern Conference and a Stanley Cup Playoff series victory over the Canadiens' longtime rival, the Boston Bruins
That was arguably his best season because he exceeded those points totals only once, while playing for the Penguins in 2000-01, when he had 44 goals and 51 assists for 95 points. But that was when Kovalev played for a struggling Penguins' team and averaged almost 24 minutes per game. He averaged only 19:33 last year, still a lot of minutes for an NHL forward.
Kovalev is tied for the Canadiens' scoring lead this year with 32 points off 12 goals and 21 assists. He is plus-8, second-best on the Canadiens, and has three game-winning goals.
Kovalev holds several unique distinctions. In 1991, he became the first Russian selected in the first round of an NHL Entry Draft and, in 1994, he joined fellow Russians and New York Rangers Alexander Karpovtsev
, Sergei Nemchinov
and Sergei Zubov
to become the first Russians to have their name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
He won an Olympic gold medal in 1992 and was named the Best Forward at the 2005 World Championships. Kovalev has represented his country in 11 different international tournaments, including the 1996 and 2004 World Cups, and the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics. Kovalev wears the Russian uniform with pride and was elated when countryman Igor Larionov
was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November, even though Larionov was just one of his heroes while growing up.
"I never had one hero, maybe Valeri Kharlamov," Kovalev said. "When I was a young kid, I used to watch the Olympics and the World Championships, and I never watched for one guy but for the whole line. I also watched Sergei Makarov
, Vladimir Krutov
, Andrei Khomutov, Slava Bykov and Valeri Kamensky
. There was no one player that was my favorite to watch.
"I was always watching to add things to my game, picking something from all those different players. I was so happy to see another Russian player chosen for the Hockey Hall of Fame and I was so happy for him when he got inducted."
Kovalev said he hoped the Hall will accept more players from outside North America, and not just Russians. He thinks it's a way to spread the sport's popularity.
"This is the way to elevate awareness of hockey and make the sport more popular because more people can now see that they can become famous, do things for their city and country and be paid, not in money, but in recognition," Kovalev said. "That's very important to the athletes, for the job we do."
The Canadiens are in second place in the Northeast Division, trailing the Boston Bruins
, and fourth in the Eastern Conference. Kovalev knows there's a big job ahead if the Canadiens are to repeat as Northeast champions. The team has struggled with injuries to its leading scorers and defensemen.
"We are all professional players and we have to find ways to do it because of all the injuries," Kovalev said. "It's a learning process. I have been playing with different players and coaches in my career and that's something we all have to learn."
Kovalev has played with a variety of left wingers and centers this season but says it will help the team in the long run.
"We are not looking for one, big line to do the job every night. We have switched lines so that the guys all get used to playing with each other," Kovalev said. "Guys can get tired. It's a long season. It's tough for some guys when they are changing all the time, especially young guys who are trying to get used to each other and it takes one or two games for that to happen."