Kovalev hoping to take Russia to new heights

Originally published on IIHF.com in 2006

By Lucas Aykroyd

Alexei Kovalev earned his pilot’s licence in 1998, but the Togliatti native has also experienced the pain of having his Olympic gold medal hopes shot down twice since that year.

A knee injury forced the 6-2, 210-pound right winger to opt out of Nagano 1998, and he settled for bronze in Salt Lake City 2002 with Russia’s tournament-closing victory over Belarus. Kovalev, a graduate of Moscow Dynamo and veteran of nearly 900 games with three NHL clubs, is expected to provide leadership for the young forwards who dominate Russia’s 2006 roster, and his spectacular stickhandling and rushes could also play an important role in revitalizing the puck possession style that brought success to the old Soviet squads. IIHF.com’s Lucas Aykroyd caught up with Kovalev recently to discuss the 32-year-old Montreal Canadien’s high-flying ways.

IIHF.com: You surprised some people by deciding to sign a long-term deal with Montreal. Why did you make that decision?

Alexei Kovalev: It was simple. They were the only team that was interested, and that’s why I signed. I can’t really shop around if nobody’s giving me anything. It’s not my decision.

IIHF.com: How have you felt since coming back in December after your knee surgery?

I’ve felt pretty good. It definitely makes a big difference when you are playing without thinking that something bothers you. I’m glad I made that decision [to have the surgery], and you know, we had a couple of good breaks there. We had probably eight days with no games, so that really helped me a lot.

At the Olympics, guys like Sergei Fedorov and Sergei Samsonov won’t be on the team. How much of a blow is that to Russia’s group of forwards?

If somebody doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t want to play. You can’t force anybody. They make their own decisions, and they decided they’re not playing. You can’t blame anybody for making a choice.

In terms of team chemistry, how much will it help that some of the NHLers played in Russia last year and got familiar with the guys from the Superleague?

We’re all talented enough that even if we don’t play with each other and some guys don’t know who they’re playing with, we still have to commit and become a team. When you play as a team, you have a chance to win. But if everyone starts pulling in his own direction, then it’ll be hard. We have a lot of young guys, and it’s not only us. Other teams have lots of young guys too. It’ll be an interesting Olympics. As I said, the best team will be the one that plays as a team and not as individuals.

IIHF.com: At 18, you were the youngest gold medalist in modern Olympic hockey history at the 1992 Albertville Games. Can you describe how different it was in terms of preparing for that tournament compared to today?

Back then, it was a little bit different. We didn’t have as much respect accorded to our team that year. We didn’t really have any stars except [Andrei] Khomutov and [Slava] Bykov, and the rest of the guys were just young and hard-working. Nobody really expected anything from us. We just went about our business, hard and quiet, and moved forward slowly. And we won the gold. But this Olympics, just like the one in 2002, will be different, because every team has some talented players, and you never know which team is going to come out and play the best hockey.

IIHF.com: At recent international tournaments, it seems like Russia’s biggest problem has been inconsistent play in big games, like the loss to the USA in the 2002 Olympic semi-finals or the one against Canada in last year’s World Championship semi-finals. How can you get that to change?

Kovalev: It’s just a learning experience. You learn from that and move on. I think the Russian team has had good success in the past couple of years. We’ve played some pretty good hockey. We were, I think, somewhere toward the bottom in the overall standings, like seventh or eighth, but we’ve moved up a couple spots. We’ve improved our game and kind of come back to our style that we used to play 10, 15 years ago, which is really fast and based on moving the puck around. Again, the most important thing is how we come together as a team and compete.

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