Canadiens fans are in a really fun position right now. With youth on the rise and a solid base, the team is building toward something good. That gives us something to which to look forward in the long, arid off-season. The flip side of that is the sense of nostalgia and regret we feel when long-time NHLers finally admit they're done and call it a career.
This summer, familiar faces like Kris Draper, Mark Recchi and Chris Osgood decided to give up their playing careers. They all went out with a sense of accomplishment after winning championships and enjoying long years at the top. Others, like Patrick Lalime and Craig Conroy bowed out with grace because nobody wanted to hire them anymore. They had the sense to recognize their time was up and admit it with an official retirement. Guys who weren't quite ready to hang 'em up just yet, like Brent Sopel, went to Europe and pretended they were really excited to do so. Then, there's Alex Kovalev.
L'Artiste has left the NHL in the same swirl of controversy that surrounded him through much of his 18 seasons in North America. Rather than leave graciously, Kovalev has decided to slam the coaching techniques of Cory Clouston and once again refuse to accept blame for his own often indifferent play. Just as he did in Montreal four years ago, Kovalev blamed the media for his benchings and painted himself the misunderstood martyr. After his first 'misquoted' interview to a Russian paper while in Montreal, Bob Gainey soothed his ego and Kovalev responded with a stellar 2008 season. Unfortunately, the new attitude didn't stick, and we saw Kovalev's drama contribute to the Canadiens' horrid Centennial season when Gainey finally threw up his hands and sent him home.
Having witnessed the best and the worst of Kovalev as a Canadien, the only emotion left for him now as he flounces back to Russia is a sense of deep pity. So many of those who played with and against him lauded his skill level as the highest they'd ever witnessed, yet the constant slag against him was his inconsistent effort. To have the kind of skill he has without the ability to call it forth at will must be incredibly frustrating, not only for the fans, but also for the player in that position.
A few years ago, someone, perhaps the Globe&Mail's Roy MacGregor, wrote a profile of Kovalev. In it, he speculated that perhaps Kovalev's inconsistent play wasn't because he didn't want to be better, but that, maybe, he couldn't. Perhaps the tremendous skill he possessed wasn't always his to command, like a great writer who gets blocked and can't produce anything readable. If that's so, it's understandable that he should be baffled by his own inability to be "on" every night.
It's not, however, acceptable that he should look to place the blame elsewhere. At this stage in his life, if he's still pointing fingers at anyone other than himself, it's just pathetic.
Kovalev has scored more than a thousand points in the NHL. For most players, that would be a ticket to the Hall of Fame. Yet, when the TSN sports panel discussed the issue tonight, the unanimous opinion on Kovalev's chances was a resounding "no."
Still, despite it all, Kovalev had the chance to leave the NHL with grace and class, celebrating his successes and his Stanley Cup win with the Rangers. So many of his peers took the high road, even when it was apparent they were retiring only because they could no longer find an NHL employer. Kovalev, in as unrealistic a statement as the one he made when he speculated about playing until he's fifty, is talking about finishing these two years in the KHL and then coming back to the NHL. It's sad.
Alex Kovalev will probably be remembered by hockey fans generally as a guy who could blow your mind on Saturday, then disappear on Monday. For Canadiens fans, he'll always be a dividing element. Some were desperate to have him back in Montreal; most were glad to see him go. Either way, it's a pity to see such talent tantalize for so long, without realizing its promise.
Because, in the end, that's what'll it will be...a waste of promise. Whether it was the fault of Kovalev's body or his mind, something went missing in his NHL career. Nobody with his skill level will ever be remembered with such frustration. His four years as a Canadien exemplified his entire career. We loved his skill and hated his foolishness. It's sad that the last salvo he'll make at the NHL is foolish. It diminishes a man who did great things, when the spirit moved him.
Thankfully we, as Canadiens fans, had the Kovalev experience and can now realize the promise the team's young players might fulfill. They may never be as spectacularly skilled as Kovalev, but they'll be consistent and they'll give their best for the team at all times.
Kovalev might have left the NHL with a similar legacy. Instead, he's going with hard feelings and accusations. That's unbefitting a guy of his skills, and it's a pity.