|Alex Kovalev poses with his new Senators jersey beneath his stall in the team's dressing room during the Russian forward's first media day at Scotiabank Place on Tuesday. Kovalev signed a two-year free-agent contract with the Senators on July 6. |
His chiseled face shone brightly from the lowered scoreboard inside a darkened Scotiabank Place, the fresh sheet of ice he'll soon shine upon below it still weeks from being made.
Inside a packed media conference room, a group of youngsters stood anxiously awaiting the Ottawa Senators' newest hockey hero. Every one of them wearing a red T-shirt with his name and the familiar No. 27 attached to its back.
This was no ordinary Tuesday morning for Alex Kovalev or the Senators, who officially welcomed the flashy Russian forward to his new hockey home. Cameras flashed and the buzz in the air was palpable as one of the National Hockey League's most talented players made his much-anticipated arrival in the nation's capital.
"I've got a whole team here," a smiling Kovalev said before high-fiving the Ottawa Senators hockey camp youngters who stood behind him as he answered questions from the Ottawa media.
Kovalev spent his last five NHL seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, where life under the microscope is perhaps more intense than anywhere else in the league. And while Tuesday's scene might suggest he is coming to Ottawa as a saviour of sorts, Kovalev feels ready to embrace the opportunity to be a difference maker with a team that is hungry to return to the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2009-10.
"My father always told me you should go and play an individual sport because you can change everything (on your own). In team sport, it’s hard," said Kovalev. "But I never believed what he said because one person can change a lot of things and that’s what I learned in life playing sports. If something goes wrong, you can always make a difference, whether it be on the ice, off the ice or just being in the locker-room. That’s the way I grew up and that’s the way I learned to play this game.
"I’ll do my best and sometimes maybe it’s not going to look pretty or sometimes it’s not going to be too good. But I’ll tell you one thing. Any team I go to, I compete as hard as I can."
As Kovalev spoke, Senators general manager Bryan Murray stood by his side, beaming more than once about the free-agent prize he landed on July 6. Kovalev signed a two-year deal in Ottawa after being rebuffed in his attempts to remain with the Canadiens.
"When Alex agreed to come to Ottawa, I might have been the most excited guy in the city for that period of time," said Murray. "I think it’s a tremendous signing and I think he’s an impact player. I don’t expect him to score every night. I don’t expect him to do anything other than play well and help us win games and I think he will do that in a big-time way."
Kovalev said he didn't seriously consider returning to his homeland to play in the Kontinental Hockey League, a move he suggested would have ended his hockey-playing days in North America for good. Instead, the 16-year NHL veteran kept his eyes open for another opportunity in the league in which he has produced 394 goals among his 941 points, many of them of the highlight-reel variety.
"For me, it was important to find a good team, a team that has a chance to win the Stanley Cup and enjoy it," he said. "I ended up with the Ottawa Senators and I’m really happy to be here and play with some of the guys I used to play against and bring that fun to the locker-room.
"I don’t have that many years (left). I’d love to play until I’m 50 but you never know how long your body can hold on. You want to have fun every year. I had that fun in Montreal and now I’m going to have fun in Ottawa."
"One person can change a lot of things and that's what I learned in life playing sports. If something goes wrong, you can always make a difference, whether it be on the ice, off the ice or just being in the locker-room. That's the way I grew up and that's the way I learned to play this game. - Alex Kovalev
While Kovalev again had to respond to questions about his consistency, Murray insisted that "was never a concern" for the Senators.
"Star players in this league have high expectations on them on a regular basis," said Murray. "You can’t score a goal every game in this league. You just can’t do it... I’ve coached and worked in this league as long as (Kovalev) has played in it. I said this when we signed him – he scared me to death every time he stepped on the ice against my team.
"Every time he came out, whether I was coaching against Montreal or Pittsburgh or the Rangers in the earlier days, he had an influence on how we played."
And the 36-year-old Kovalev, with wife, Eugenia, sitting a few feet from him in the front row, said he has plenty of good years left in him to torment the opposition.
"I remember my agent said two years ago, ‘Alex, you’re not young anymore. You can’t be the same as you used to be,’ " he said. "But I told him that I’ve proven I can be the same guy. That’s why I don’t really believe in age because skill is always with you.
"Maybe you’re not as fast, but you can (provide) other things from what you’ve learned over your career. You can still do things to help the team."