On June 9, 1991, National Hockey League history was taking place at Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium. For Alex Kovalev
, thousands of miles away in Russia, that historical moment passed without any mention.
Unaware of the fact that he had just become the first Russian player ever selected in the first round of the NHL Draft, 18-year old Kovalev would have to wait to hear the exciting news that would forever change his life.
For many, 1991 seems like only a few short years ago, but you have to remember that there was no such thing as public internet access at this time with live Draft tickers or real-time analysis. Cable television coverage did not have the broad range that currently exists across the globe. Cell phones, as we know today, were merely a futuristic vision. Word didn't travel at the rate that it does today in the mass media culture that we live in. Hence, the lapse in time in notifying the talented Moscow Dynamo forward.
"I never got to the Draft," recalled Kovalev when asked to recall his unique Draft experience. "I actually found out (back home in Russia) a few days later that I had been selected.
"Nobody really said anything that I was supposed to be at the Draft or that I was definitely going to be drafted. I really didn't know anything about it. I actually found out from one of my friends that I was selected and I really didn't believe it at the time. When somebody tells you something like that, you're not going to believe it right away until you really see it yourself."
After the Rangers were finally able to track down the young Russian star and inform him of the exciting news, Kovalev was finally able to let the reality of the situation set it.
"The fact that New York was the team to select me held special meaning," he reminisced. "It's the capital of the world and for someone who was what seemed like a world away, it was comforting to know that New York would be my home. (Rangers European scout) Christer Rockstrom got me a few video tapes of the Rangers playing from the previous season and I had a chance to see how the game was different from the game in Russia. It was exciting to watch these tapes and to think that this was my future."
Then-Rangers General Manager Neil Smith traveled to Russia a few weeks after the Draft to meet with Kovalev and welcome him to the Blueshirt family.
"He (Smith) brought me a Rangers jersey with a '91' on it and talked about New York and the National Hockey League. It was really an exciting time for me."
The Rangers had previously gone the 'European-route' with their first pick in the 1985 Entry Draft, selecting Ostersund, Sweden forward Ulf Dahlen
with the seventh overall selection. The Blueshirts had even tapped the Soviet/Russian system a few years earlier, selecting Central Red Army left winger Sergei Kapustin
in the seventh round (141st overall) in the 1982 Draft, Roman Oksiuta
in the 10th round (202nd overall) in the 1989 Draft and Soviet Wings center Sergei Nemchinov
in the 12th round (244th overall) in the 1990 Draft.
But for the NHL, which today boasts one of the most internationally diverse player pools of any league in the world, the selection of Kovalev was only a sign of things to come. This, the Togliatti native holds in a special place.
"It means a lot to me that I was the first Russian player ever picked in the first round. It was an exciting feeling to go from being drafted to jumping in and soon becoming part of a team in the NHL. From the time that I was picked, I just couldn't wait to get there to New York because it's every player's dream to come and play in the NHL and especially in New York."
For Kovalev, the magnitude of his first round selection set in deeper as time had passed following the Draft, also leading to some added pressure as well.
"My goal following the Draft was to really prepare myself to play," he remembered. "The fact that I was selected in the first round weighed on my mind that I had to live up to expectations and try to be better. I didn't want to let anybody down or have people start thinking that I wasn't as good as everyone thought I was. So, there definitely was some pressure to it as well."
For Kovalev, who had visited the United States a few times prior to the 1991 NHL Draft with the Russian National Junior Team, New York seemed to be the perfect fit.
"We played tournaments in Boston, Lake Placid and a few other places ... but ironically through our travels, we always came through New York City."
As it turned out, only a short amount of time after that June 9th day, Kovalev would soon grow to call New York home.