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The Enigma Of Alex Kovalev

A recent Hockey News blurb caused an interesting stir in Montreal this week in regards to the always mystifying play and general on ice detachment of Habs winger Alex Kovalev. Coming on the heels of the elusive talent's comments on how the Canadiens play defense and offense, the timing couldn't have been more odd.

Earlier in the week, the Russian winger was lamenting the Habs lack of 5 on 5 production, claiming it was a result of the teams system of play. Kovalev did state that he had no issues with that style, provided the team keeps winning. Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau wasn't the least bit ruffled by Kovalev's comments when he addressed it by saying that as long the winger follows directives, all is well. Carbonneau made the point to note that there are no restrictions placed on what the Canadiens forwards do in the offensive zone.

The coach is obviously getting used to the players's brutally frank nature in the press. Kovalev says what he feels, with no censuring for the easily hurt.

A previous run in for the two was avoided earlier when Kovalev lashed out at referees and was handed a game misconduct for his actions. Carbonneau needed to take him aside and read him the leaders riot act of conduct not becoming an assistant captain.

All of which makes this bit of Hockey News news ( ! ) all the more juicy.

The story that ran concerned the 5 hardest players to coach in the NHL. The five named were Kovalev (No!), Scott Hartnell, Ales Hemsky, Todd Bertuzzi, and unexplainably, goaltender Rick DiPietro.

When faced with the news, a stunned Kovalev reacted by saying that he has had no issues with the 13 coaches he has played for in his fifteen years in the league.

Wow, talk about a coach killer. Thirteen coaches in 15 years!

Before the dust could settle on this inconsequencial tidbit, along comes former NHLer Ed Olczyk with a beauty from playing alongside Alex with the 1994 New York Rangers. Olczyk was working the broadcast booth as part of the Bruins end of last nights telecast.

He related a story to the Montreal media too good to not pass along and it made it's way like brushfire across the Montreal dailies this morning.

It could forever become known as the "Story of the Seven Minute Shift", starring Iron Mike Keenan as the coach.

Early in his rookie season with the Rangers, Kovalev was obviously looking to dazzle the hockey world with his skills and talents. During one particular game, he had overextended a shift beyond Keenan's allowed limit by failing to hear or ignoring calls back to the bench. Once he arrived, having been on the ice a total of 1:05, Keenan waved him back into the play.

Kovalev admitted to initially thinking it was because the coach was happy with his efforts.

While Kovalev returned to the play, Keenan instructed players on the bench that no one was to hop over and relieve him. Several times he returned to the play, only to be shunned at the bench upon numerous efforts to get off.

The former Ranger recalled the incident Monday, saying that he had to score a goal just to catch a breather.

Talk about your classic lines!

Kovalev ended up staying on the ice for just over 7 minutes, literaly saved by the end of the period whistle.

Olczyk recounts that the gist of the message may not have hit home as originally intended by Keenan, as the coach squeezed another 5 minute shift out of his winger come the second period.

Who knows, maybe he finally got the drift?

Before his arrival in Montreal, I had seen Kovalev perform on a handful of occasions, enough to say I was familiar with him. Little did I know what an enigmatic character he was, on and off the ice.

The player has a frustratingly maddening amount of talent. When he is driven, possessed, he is something to watch. On occasion he can grab a moment, seize it, and change the flow of a game. When his team mates see that he is in form, they follow his lead. The trouble with Kovalev, is that half his time is spent in an ozone bound gaze. He'll have an inspired notion, but give into frustration effortlessly.

In his almost two years with the Canadiens, fans and coaches alike, have simply learned to live with him the way he is. The upsides have so far outnumbered the two and a half hous skates most people call games. You take the good with the bad.

Fortunately for Kovalev, he has so far not committed the unforgivable Habs sin of playoff coasting. In the Canadiens two shortened runs since Kovalev has joined the team, he has displayed an obviously focused post season fire. Kovalev says such playoff atmosphere is what endeared him to Montreal upon arrival.

It is so unfortunate he doesn't commit himself to trying to be the best player in the league. Many have suggested, going on 15 years, that he has it within him. The talent that is! The desire is however, fleeting.
Watching Kovalev at the end of practices has become at journalistic ritual in Montreal. Kovalev will re-emerge onto the ice surface with a bucket of pucks and a set of cones and proceed to play little games with himself. When it's said of players, that they can stickhandle in a phone booth, that is precisely the case with him. If he could actually drag such a prop onto the ice and toil in it, he probably would.

Usually he will stickhandle figure eights with his legs and cones, flip the puck onto his stick (like we've all seen Crosby do in the Reebok ads) and toss it, and kick the puck around in attempts to accomplish God-knows-what.

Last season, after an optional morning skate, Kovalev was found on the dimmed Bell center ice surface with a shortened stick in hand. Unbeknownst to him, a scribe from Le Journal de Montreal attentively watched from 20 rows up. Kovalev knelt on the blue line, a tight grip on his mini stick, and proceeded to fling pucks at the net.

After he'd wrung the crossbar four times in succession and randomly thereafter, the excited scribe skipped down to ice level, disbelieving what he'd just seen in the semi darkness of the arena.

In amazement, he asked Kovalev where on earth did he learn to perfect such a task. Almost embarrassed, Kovalev replied that he was not attempting to nail the crossbar at all. He asked the reporter to kindly keep the story from the papers. In truth, he said, he was simply trying to land the pucks onto the top mesh of the goalnet.

Figures! Did i mention he has unused maddening talent?