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03 Jul 2010 Will Kovalchuk Get ‘Yashin-ed’?

Ilya Kovalchuk

Kovalchuk has said he just wants to win, but is it just lip service?

As I’ve watched the Kovalchuk bonanza (note slight sarcasm), the thought has occurred to me repeatedly that perhaps he will be the next Alexei Yashin. Some of the warning signs might already be there.

Yashin. Awesome player, but a guy maybe too many people expected too much out of. Maybe they expected more leadership than he could give. Hey, some guys just aren’t made that way. Maybe he was overpaid. (Maybe, they all are, but we won’t go there.) But being deemed an “overpaid” player brings massive pressure and expectation. Yashin was a captain for two different NHL teams — that’s a heaping helping of stress and responsibility for pretty much anyone, but for some it’s like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Some guys are best left doing what they do best and no more. In Kovalchuk’s case, wind up, shoot, score, sneak out of the area and slip off to Morton’s in your sweet baby blue Bentley. No questions asked. As captain in Atlanta, he was never the media guy or the go-to-for-a-quote guy, which is part of the captain’s gig.

But what does Kovy have to do with Yashin? You’re probably thinking I am crazy. Maybe you’re right, but I am thinking several steps down the line. Let’s say Kovalchuk signs with the New York Islanders as is now the tasty rumor of the day. (The Islanders are, coincidentally, Yashin’s last NHL team. I won’t even mention the coincidence that Kovy and Alexei have the same patronymic, er, middle name: Valeryevich) Anyway. So, he signs with the Isles, he gets massive dollars, massive term. With it he gets the scrutiny of the New York media. He also gets the love (and hate) of the New Yawk fans. Whereas in Atlanta, he could slip out the back door without answering questions, in New York (or any other hockey haven) he’ll be held to account. A quiet night at The Cheesecake Factory (a Kovy fave)? Fuggetaboutit. In New York the fans will put him to the test even as he tries to enjoy that triple turtle cheesecake with extra whipped cream. Nobody will be polite. Nobody will call him Mr. Kovalchuk. It’ll be right up in his face with something like this: “What the [bleep] were you [bleeping] doing in last night’s [bleeping] game you [bleepity-bleepity-bleep]?! You bum!”

Kovalchuk has said in the past that he prefers anonymity and after years of watching how he handles himself around Atlanta, I am inclined to believe it. He’s spent years ducking the two or three reporters who make the ATL locker room scene. How will it feel to have a face full of ultra pushy reporters every single night and no way to sneak off into the darkness? Will he wilt? Thrive? Get angry? Or get “Yashin-ed” (that is to say, blamed for everything)?

Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk

As exciting as Ovechkin, left, Kovalchuk differs from his friend and countryman in some important ways.

Let’s say he is made captain of his new team. Can he handle the pressure? People might argue that sure he can. Of course! He’s held up under the gun of the Russian national team. He’s even excelled. But I argue, this is different. Much different. As a member of the national team, he’s among friends and fellow countrymen. He’s at home. In North America, he’s a bit of a fish out of water. He doesn’t seem to have the same comfort level here as, say, an Alexander Ovechkin (or his NHL-trailblazing forefather Sergei Fedorov), for example. He’s a bit of a homebody. Married young, with three young kids. Yet … like Yashin, he has a wife who was somebody once. Where Yashin has former supermodel Carol Alt, Kovalchuk has Nicole, who sang in a popular Russian, all-female group before settling down. Maybe she’s pushing to jumpstart a career here in the U.S.? If that’s the case, L.A. or N.Y. would be A-OK from her standpoint.

Alexei Yashin was vilified for holding out for more money when he was with the Ottawa Senators. Kovalchuk is painted by many here in North America as a “greedy bastard” — all about the money, not about the winning. Is it true? The jilted Thrasher fan in me has a tiny “yes” peeping inside. If he wanted to win, he could have done what Marian Hossa did: Hand-picked teams he felt had excellent chances of winning. Instead, if rumors are true, and that he’s asking for the sun, the moon AND the stars, he will have a limited number of teams able to pony up that kind of money. And, by all accounts, the number of teams is quite limited (teams in the Kontinental Hockey League notwithstanding). At the moment he seems to be proving the all-he-cares-about-is-money crowd to be correct. People said that about Yashin too.

Yashin was a solid player, really, but he could not shoulder the heavy burden of expectation that his contract placed on him. Some players thrive under such burdens, some break their sticks in frustration, cast them into the stands and get suspended by the league (hello Kovalchuk!).

Alexei Yashin

Yashin is all but forgotten in North America -- except by the Isles who will continue to pay him until 2014.

Let’s say he gets his big NHL pay day. He gets his long-term contract. He gets the sought-after no-trade clause. Let’s say he’s playing in the pressure cooker of a New York or under the bright lights in Hollywood. How will he hold up? One could argue that he didn’t hold up particularly well in Atlanta, where the spotlight isn’t as bright and the pressure is, well, close to nil. Sure he got his goals, but he was prone to brooding and fits of immaturity, particularly when things weren’t going well. (He was prone to moments of brilliance as well, no doubt about it.) One could argue that he didn’t lead Atlanta to glory. As a matter of fact, one wouldn’t need to argue that. It’s a fact. One could argue he’s a sniper, pure and simple, not a leader. One could argue — and many have — that he’s obsessed not with winning, but with money. Time will tell the true tale.

Five or six years down the road, I think we could be talking about one of two things: Kovalchuk being “Yashin-ed” — bought out and essentially forgotten by the league; or he experiences a modicum of success, but not as THE leader of whatever team he is playing for. If Kovalchuk wins anywhere, he will be a key piece, but not THE piece that seals the deal. He’s just not that kind of guy.

A third option — and one I still consider a possible scenario — is that he does go ply his trade in the KHL, spurning whatever offers come his way here in North America and going for the really big dollars the KHL can offer. I believe superstars like Kovalchuk are leaned on heavily by the powers that be in Russia and Kovalchuk recently supplanted Alexei Morozov as the captain of Team Russia. I could see Kovalchuk returning in glory to play in the KHL. Coincidentally, the KHL team said to be the front runner for his services? SKA St. Petersberg — Alexei Yashin’s team.

Photos: Ilya Kovalchuk; Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk; and Alexei Yashin by Goddess Kaatiya. Copyright 2007-2010. All Rights Reserved.

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