An interview with Ilya Kovalchuk

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One of the great things we've seen sprout up on the blogosphere in the past year or so is a whole bunch of foreign-language translations that have given us quite a bit more insight into (mainly) the NHL's Russian-born players.

Who knew, for example, that Viktor Kozlov was anywhere near this interesting?

The language barrier plays a role in making some European NHL players more inaccessible to North American reporters than others, something I've argued in the past that leads to them being labelled "enigmas," so it's great to hear them speak their minds more eloquently — and freely — in their mother tongues. 

By way of Japers' Rink contributer Tuvan Hillbilly, what follows is a translation of a recent Sport Express interview of Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk conducted by Russian reporter Slava Malamud. Among other things, he talks about his friendship with Dany Heatley, the Russians' eye on the Olympics next February and his long-term future in Atlanta.

There's also this great line, which I'm hoping will turn into the NHL's next catch phrase: "You can't be an amoeba when you play hockey." 

I well remember your first years in the NHL. I recall that you once said that Edmonton coach MacTavish didn't have any brains because he didn't play with a helmet.

"Well, yeah...."

A little bit later you were pointing your finger at Crosby when he sat in the penalty box. But now it seems to me like you've really changed. You've gotten more serious, calmed down. You don't show your emotions as much.

"Who, me? It's just that an opportunity hasn't presented itself for a while. No, I remain the same as I was and nothing about me has changed. I just react to the situation at hand, and every situation is different. If the moment calls for something to be done and I think it's necessary to do it, then I'll do it. Don't worry, I'm not renouncing my words or actions."

You're playing on a team that's not in the running for the playoffs...

"What do you mean? The chances may be few but they always exist. We'll talk about this after the season is over. A lot can change over the course of eight, 10 games."

I just wanted to say that it must be easier to be a star and suck up to the press when you play on a top team.

"No, the most important thing is to always be yourself. I don't need to suck up to anybody, and I've never done that in my life. Let other people suck up. If you just be yourself, no matter the situation, people will respect you. If you suck up, then you're just a wanna-be."

Are there any NHL players who annoy you?

"I really respect them all, both those I play against and those on my team. Hockey, especially at the NHL level, is a very difficult type of sport. During the game everybody slams into each other at top speed, and after the game you shake hands. Take that time when I pointed my finger at Crosby. Do you think I wanted to say something to him by doing that? Not at all, it was just emotions. Crosby is Crosby and Kovalchuk is Kovalchuk. He got penalized, I made a goal and I was showing him "Look, I made a goal". That was all."

Are you sure it wasn't an instance when an opponent made you lose control of yourself?

"Something happened in the game, probably. It was just emotions. You can't be an amoeba when you play hockey -- you have to be an emotional player. If you're going to be indifferent, then you'd be better off sitting at home watching television. You can fuss if you don't get all your channels."

Jaromir Jagr recently said that Kovalchuk can only be called "great" after he's won the Stanley Cup.

"What he said is absolutely true. But it isn't just the Stanley Cup. As I see it, the Olympic Games are even more important. I made a baby step toward that goal when we won the World Championship. I think there will be a lot of victories in our future. The team is young and talented and our chances are excellent."

You've had some difficult times personally playing with the National Team.

"No, it was never difficult for me playing with the National Team. This is a great honor for me, and I'm always happy to play. This is something that the press made up, and I don't have the least bit of interest in it. I go out and do my thing, and it isn't important to me whether or not I make a goal or a pass, or if I simply catch the puck. If we win, then I am very happy."

But there were some things that the press didn't make up. Your dispute with Viktor Tikhonov, for example.

"It was emotions speaking. He's a great coach. How could you accuse him of anything? He's trained so many champions... so what can I say about the "Kovalchuk said something about Tikhonov" matter? Well, I just said it. It was my own personal opinion, which nobody forbade me to say. But that doesn't diminish his greatness in any way."

You also had problems with coach Vladimir Krikunov. He accused you of doing nothing else but hanging out in bars.

"Krikunov says a lot of things. In Quebec he said that the Canadian National Team was guzzling through the entire championship. People talk about those things they are most familiar with."

So... you not only had difficulties with the National Team, but your relationship with the fans has also been rough. Surely you would agree with this?

"Yeah, I agree. But there is nothing terrible about that. One day the fans criticize you, and the next they praise you."

You don't have to look very far for an example of that Quebec 2008 (when Russian won the world championship). There was a lot of the former and the latter.

"But not within the team. The fans might consider the goals and think "Look, he's just playing half-heartedly. He's only interested in playing for money in the NHL." But I'm only interested in the opinions of those people who know me personally."

In Quebec, when you weren't scoring you became a tough-guy.

" 'Tough-guy' ... Look, you're making a mountain out of a molehill. It was just that at that moment I didn't want them to hurt our captain."

Well, that's the definition of a "tough-guy" — a player who defends his teammates.

"Believe me, I'm far from being a tough guy. I just do what I feel is necessary."

How did you react to the explosion of love towards you after the winning goal? Did you not want to say: "Look here! What were you saying about me before?"

"No. You have to understand that I'm not that kind of guy. Once upon a time Alexei Zhitnik played for us in Atlanta, and he taught me a local saying: "Don't be too high, don't be too low". It means don't climb up too high and don't fall down too low. Always have a sense of measure, both when you're celebrating something good as well as when you're going through something rough. So I was just happy for the fans. They finally got some happiness, and they could celebrate with us."

Ilya, you can say what you want but Kovalchuk circa 2001 would never have said that. You're just paraphrasing Barack Obama with this "too high, too low" stuff. Has having a family influenced you that much?

"No, life is simple. I've gotten older, I think about things a little differently now — I think about my actions a few steps in advance."

So the current title of "National Hero of Russia" doesn't have much effect on you?

"It's nice, of course, but life doesn't stop. After all, hockey is a team sport. So Kovalchuk made a goal — didn't Semin score two goals? And didn't [teammate Alexei] Tereshchenko make the goal which changed the whole course of the game?"

You are absolutely right. You guys won the first championship in 15 years. Ovechkin, Kovalchuk — it was an awesome victory — and then our soccer players made it to the semi-finals of the European Championship, where they were soundly beaten by Spain. And that had an even bigger furor. Does that offend you?

"Soccer is the No. 1 sport. It's easier to play soccer than hockey. Anybody can put on shorts and a T-shirt and play soccer, but hockey is an expensive sport to play. We were given a grand reception. We met the president and the prime minister, they loaded us down with presents, and they gave the title of "Honored Master of Sports" to guys who had never received it before... all of that was more than sufficient."

Is your Mercedes [given to him by the president after the gold medal win] still there in Russia?

"Yeah, it is still there. I'll drive it during the off-season."

Is your well-known blue Bentley still on the road in Atlanta?

"For the time being, but it's going to Russia soon. I'm giving it to a friend."

Are you buying a new one?

"Well, you ask me questions like this and then in Russia they'll be saying "They've gotten so spoiled over there that they have to keep getting new cars."

Why would they say that? You have two kids. Maybe you need a minivan.

"Aha! Or a trailer."

You've been in the NHL for quite some time now, all the while on the same team to which you've given your all. Your reward for this was four losses in the 2007 playoffs. I understand all this "too high, too low" stuff, but little by little the weight of disappointment must start getting heavier and heavier.

"Unfortunately, everything doesn't depend on one single player. That's why I keep coming back to ‘this is a team sport'. What can one man do? I hope that things will start turning for the better with our team. I still have one more year with this team and so far there aren't any plans whatsoever as far as being traded."

I noticed that at the all-star game you hung around a lot with Dany Heatley, your old friend and former teammate.

"Heatley is a great guy, and he really helped me out a lot when I first came here. You could say that we grew up together as NHL players. We roomed together on road trips and just generally were very close. In my first year I was the sole Russian in Atlanta, and I had to learn English by any means necessary, and Heatley gave me an English dictionary. Sometimes in restaurants I couldn't even order, so he always helped me."

Your coach at the time said that "these two rookies are the last ones to come off the ice at every practice!"

(Laughing) "That's because unlike all the other players we were caught up on our sleep. We both had a rule that we would take a nap for two, three hours before every game."

What did you talk about in Montreal?

"Everything. What do friends talk about? The only thing we didn't talk about was girls. He has a steady girlfriend and I'm married, so that's a forbidden topic.

Wouldn't you like to play with him again on the same team?

"Who knows what's going to happen. He played well in Atlanta, and then there was the accident [which killed teammate Dan Snyder] and he had to have a change of scenery. I will say that the two of us played really well together on the same line. Heatley is a great passer. For some reason I'm not a very good passer. I understand what you're getting at. I'll go talk with Dany now so that he can ask to be transferred to Atlanta."

At the beginning of the season there was a time when you were practicing in the red fourth-line jersey. Why was that?

"No, no, no. That was a misunderstanding. In Atlanta we only have one hockey reporter, and he simply didn't understand. We don't have a ‘fourth-line jersey'. Somebody either gave him wrong information or he himself got it mixed up. I played for 25 minutes in that game, just like I always have. If the fourth line always plays 25 minute shifts, then I just don't know what to say to that."

Ovechkin's 25 minutes in Washington are surely easier than your 25 minutes in Atlanta, which have been spent playing trap this season.

"These are questions for the coach. I don't choose the coaches. They tell you to do something, and you try your best to do it."

You can't tell me that this is anything close to your preferred style of play. You are not a "trapping" forward.

"The coach draws up the plans for the players. It's just that we had a lot of games that we lost by just 1 or 2 goals, and everything was decided at the last minute. We needed to play more disciplined in defense. And I can't really say that we've had a bad season. This is how the Senators are playing in Canada and we're playing in Atlanta. I think that their season is now more difficult, however, because of this... Basically, I'm not thinking about the future right now. I'll say it again-I like it in Atlanta, and I hope I can stay there. But I understand that this is a business. We'll see."

Star-divide

My thanks to Slava (who I had a chance to meet and have a drink with in Montreal at the all-star game) and Tuvan. Here's hoping this won't be the last of these I'm able to put together with their help.

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