Welcome to our series on who wore each number best for the Penguins.
The idea is being openly borrowed from our new hockey writer, Cody Tucker, and his project at the Lansing State Journal covering all the uniform numbers worn through Michigan State football history, one that’s been well received by their readers and prompted heavy discussion and debate.
Under the organization of Taylor Haase, and following the voting of a big chunk of our staff, we’ll publish one new one each day until completion, which should be right around the start of training camp.
Name: Alexei Kovalev
Position: Right wing
Born: Feb. 24, 1973, in Tolyatti, Russia
Seasons with Penguins: 1998-2003, 2011
Statistics with Penguins: 365 games, 151 goals, 203 assists in regular season, 46 games, 12 goals, 18 assists in playoffs
Put it this way: Amid a Pittsburgh pantheon of Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jaromir Jagr, Kovalev could do anything those guys could do.
But the emphasis in that sentence must be on a single word: Could.
Because Kovalev could also drive coaches, teammates and fans completely nuts by vanishing for entire shifts, periods, even months at a time. And not even he’d be able to explain why, offering answers that would confound before he’d complete his opening sentence, then continuing on his odd course for several minutes of head-shaking, self-punitive commentary.
I once asked the man a question in Phoenix about an ongoing slump, and I swear my tape recorder ran out of battery before the punctuation.
That said, when No. 27 was on, even No. 66 was moved to superlatives, openly referring to him in 2002 as having “enough talent to be the best player in the world.” Which, but for the source, would have come across as blasphemy.
And yet, it was true, for Kovalev could:
• Stickhandle better than anyone in franchise history, and yes, I’m aware of the above comparison points. But I can also show you this:
• Gain entry on the power play better than anyone in franchise history, and yes, I’m aware that Paul Coffey and Sergei Gonchar played here, but I’m also aware that Lemieux himself would back me on this and that, as he playfully demonstrated for me recently by dropping one shoulder, Kovalev would do it with the same move every time. Everyone knew what was coming. No one could stop it.
• Almost casually, effortlessly drop back from the wing to defense — not as a defending forward, but as a defenseman — including manning the center point on the power play without anyone in sight.
• Shoot the puck as hard, if not harder, than anyone in franchise history.
• See the play and feed the puck at a level that would have brought him countless more assists if only he couldn’t also …
• Hold the puck for a bleeping eternity, better than anyone in franchise history, which, of course, he’d do so often that, as my former Post-Gazette colleague Dave Molinari once beautifully observed at my side in the Civic Arena press box, “It’s almost like he thinks he has to stickhandle around at least four guys before taking a shot.”
• Snipe from short and long range with equal proficiency and accuracy, both with slap and wrist shots, and on top of all that, from either wing, as elegantly seen in this 2001 hat trick against Martin Brodeur that included a classic toe-drag move and the OT breakaway:
• Skate faster and more adroitly than anyone on the roster … no matter who was on the roster.
• Try more weird stuff that worked in practice than anyone, as this bizarre thing against Marc-Andre Fleury showed in 2011:
• Could even play physically, as if all of this wasn’t already overkill. He was 6-2, 220 pounds, rock-solid and powerful enough on his skates that, when so motivated — though this facet was rare — he’d mash with anyone. That’s one of many reasons that, for all his inconsistencies, he’d always rise up in the biggest games, score the biggest goals.
This kind of breaks from the norm here, but watch this from his time in Montreal, in the playoffs, after he gets ticked at Zdeno Chara, then decides he’d like to embarrass every other Boston player in sight:
• Was absolutely awesome in how he lived his life, from being a licensed pilot and occasionally flying himself on hockey trips, to spending his years in Pittsburgh in an apartment high atop Mount Washington because, as he told me, “It’s so pretty up there every night. I like it.”
• Have a blast on the ice, too, highlighted by his unforgettable hat-trick moonwalk celebration at the Civic Arena:
I could actually do this all day. But I’ll condense it to this: For that generation of Pittsburgh hockey fans, for all the more productive players surrounding Kovalev at the time, all the kids were growing up wanting to be Kovalev, as was the case in New York and Montreal, his other main stops before and after his primary time here.
And there was a reason for that: He could do things like nobody else.
WHAT’S HE DOING NOW?
Kovalev, now 45, still wants to play. In the NHL. When he came back to Pittsburgh for that short-lived return in 2011, he told me he wanted to play as long as Jaromir Jagr, that, “I don’t know anything else in my life. This is all I want.” He was recently the general manager of the EHC Visp club in Switzerland’s second division, already having once emerged from retirement to play when one of his guys was injured. (Assist on the first shift, then was kicked out in the third period for a wicked check from behind!) In May, he was named assistant coach of Kunlun Red Star, a KHL team based in China.
IT WAS SPOKEN
— “Maybe it’s jealousy, maybe something else. People would say, ‘Oh, he’s so talented, but he’s not doing this or that.’ I have no idea. One person says it, and everybody else repeats it. ‘He doesn’t care. He doesn’t play hard. One night, he’s there. One night, he’s not there.’ I’ve been in this league a long time and scored a lot of points. That’s why I don’t care what people are saying. I know what I’ve done. I think that’s one reason why Pittsburgh is special for me. Before I got traded here the first time, people used to say things about me underachieving, how I could never score 30 goals. Then, I did that every year I was here. I always felt that people here believed in me.” — Kovalev, in a one-on-one interview we did in 2011
— “He’s one of those guys you watch even when he’s on the ice by himself. You can watch a guy shoot hoops alone, but you generally wouldn’t watch a hockey player. Except him.” — Jamie Pushor, Penguins defenseman, in 2001
— “The most talented players are also the most complicated.” — Viktor Tikhonov, legendary head coach of the Soviet Union, on Kovalev after the 1992 Olympics
— “He’s the most complete player I’ve ever seen.” — Wayne Gretzky, in 2008
HONORABLE MENTION AT NO. 27
Not for this overgrown kid. And there never will be.
Tomorrow: Matt Sunday’s got No. 28. At least one of our subscribers will be very pleased with the selection.
Yesterday: Syl Apps