Monday, August 8, 2011

Fond (and Not So Fond) Farewells

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.


Kyle Roussel said...

Well written, J.T.. It's easy for a lot of us to lose our minds when it comes to Kovalev. Myself, I feel as though he can say what he likes about his former coaches and the media. They aren't battles that he can win, but he can go ahead and try. It's foolish from a career standpoint, but he's absolutely free to say it.

What I take issue with is how he did it. Not only could he not say those things while shopping his services in North America, but they only slip out when he's protected by the shield of distance.

As for returning to the NHL? That's as delusional as the people who rallied to try and have him re-signed as a Hab. He's surely blacklisted himself now, and when his name comes up for Hall of Fame consideration, the conversation will be filled with curt dismissals and laughter. That's sad.

On that note, let's not forget that Gainey did not throw up his hands and show him the door after that nightmarish centennial season. The Canadiens did offer him a 2-year, 9 million dollar deal before taking it off the table and handing that money to Gionta. Can you imagine this Canadiens team for the past two seasons with Kovalev instead of Gionta? Good lord.

Anonymous said...

After the way Mark Recchi acted this year, I will not be sad to see him go. His classless remarks concerning concussions this year almost makes him go out as foolishly as Kovy. Good riddence to both of them.

MC said...

I don't want to defend Kovalev exactly, but some context is needed in his comments. He said Clouston was hard to understand and did not treat his players well, which by all accounts is why he was fired; look what Heatley did to get away from Clouston. But when Kovy mentions the same thing he gets roasted. And the Ottawa media were absolute assholes to him, attacking him directly instead of attacking Murray for signing a declining star to an inappropriate contract, creating unrealistic expectations. I don't blame Kovy for taking shots at the Ottawa press.
My take is that Kovalev's skill set really deteriorated in the last three years, specifically his lower body strength and core strength. In his best years in Montreal, he had the ability to accelerate or turn very quickly, creating separation from he defenders. He was very solid on the puck and in the corner with defenders bouncing off him. And of course his shot was explosive. In the centennial year, he seemed to have lost this explosive power. In the NHL the competition is too good to lose any edge on your opponent. Jagr once commented on his lack of production following an injury that because he gained 5 pounds, he lost a step and that has been the difference. And he was the best player in the world at the time. There is a long list of NHL stars who have lost their edge (Redden, Drury, Huet, Peca, Gomez to name a few) but it's Kovalev poor play that gets attacked as a failing in character instead of simply a declining skill set.

Mike said...

MC has it right. All the Kovalev bashing is off base and unfair. "Nobody with his skill level will ever be remembered with such frustration"? That's just silly. To take only players who came into the league around the same time as Kovy, I could name Peter Nedved, Alexei Yashin, Pat Falloon, and Alex Daigle. All were picked in the Top 2 of their draft years (Kovy was drafted 16th in 1991) and all came into the NHL with much greater hype and supposedly more promise. Sure, Kovy had better hands than those guys and ended up being lauded by his peers rather than denigrated as, say, Yashin or Daigle were. But that was because he was not only a guy with enormous skill but a guy who worked enormously hard to improve on that skill. Let's be fair.
In any case, as you yourself mention, Kovalev scored 1,000 points, won a Stanley Cup, and routinely blessed his audiences with unique artistry. He led the Habs in scoring three out of his four full seasons with the team and, more important, captivated a fan base that, after a decade of watching dull, dismal hockey, learned once again to embrace on-ice beauty. Let's remember him for that rather than harping on what he may or may not have said in a badly translated Russian magazine article. (Incidentally, he's on the money about Clouston and about the press corps.) Let's also remember him for his clutch performances, which is something nobody in the anti-Kovalev camp ever bothers to mention. Yes, it's true: Kovy always saved his best hockey for when the games mattered most. He averaged 0.8 points per game in 123 career playoff games (and almost a point per playoff game during his time with the Habs), making him one of the very few players of his generation to score at a higher pace in the playoffs than in the regular season. You want another fun fact? No player picked in Kovalev's draft year *or in any year since* has scored more than the 1024 points he racked up in the NHL. He was truly among the game's elite, whatever hacks like Roy MacGregor might say.

V said...

MC, I don't think it's his declining skill set that has people attacking his character.

I think it's the inconsistent effort throughout his career and his penchant for going to Russia and publically throwing his NHL coaches under the bus.

Anonymous said...

I liked Kovalev. I think the issue was that he needed to be the center of attention. To him it was all about Alex Kovalev's team or Alex Kovalev. To a guy like Crosby it is about winning the Cup, about leading his team to the Cup, or just sitting in the stands screaming for his team to win the Cup.

One player overcomes hurdles while the other points them out.

But Kovalev was some kinda player.

Anonymous said...

The young players, sure they may be consistent, but consistent at what? Tom the bomb was consistent, but do you really want a team filled "consistent" players?

Hadulf said...

I'm one of the 'I like Kovalev' group. Regardless of how he left the Canadiens and the NHL, I will always remember Kovalev as one of my favorite player. He had his flaws, to be sure, playing 1 out of 4 games (as the saying goes) is not enough but to me, this only added to the character of this guy. He's a soap opera on his own. I enjoyed it.

As for the Hall of Fame - I think Kovy should be in there. 1000+ points, plus, he's the first Russian to get his name on the Cup (along with 2 others I believe that were with the Rangers at the time) and that to me, should be enough.