ATLANTA – Atlanta Thrashers forward Ilya Kovalchuk is having the kind of season that assures him a place among the NHL’s most respected leaders, and I’m not just referring to his sizzling eight-game start.
Kovalchuk, who started the season with a NHL league-leading 9 goals in his first 8 games, took a puck in the foot that broke a bone.
The injury occurred on October 24th and was expected to sideline the high-flying winger for four-to-six weeks projecting his return in late-November or early December.
This past Tuesday way ahead of schedule, Kovalchuk laced up the skates and joined his teammates for practice.
After testing the foot with a full practice, it was first reported he would join his team for a trip to New York for a game Thursday night against the Rangers. That news changed when the stress of the skate caused a flare-up and signified it was best to let him remain at home in Atlanta for more rest.
Atlanta has been a city that is measuring its rain in feet this year and this week was no exception. The skies again opened up compliments of Hurricane Ida causing delays to the Thrashers’ charter flight.
The delayed take-off gave Kovalchuk a little extra time to reassess his injury. He contacted the team, packed up and raced to Atlanta-Hartsfield to take the flight to New York in hopes of playing at MSG.
Kovalchuk is a superstar who clearly has nothing more to prove to the Thrashers organization or any other team in the league. He is one of the most talented players in the world and if he becomes a free agent, teams will be aggressively bidding on his services like a treasured piece at an auction.
A few weeks ago, during one of the talk shows on Atlanta’s 680 The Fan, the hosts were kicking around rumors the Thrashers had offered Kovalchuk a $100 million contract.
True or not, Kovalchuk is guaranteed one of the highest-paid contracts in the league before the puck drops in October 2010, that is certain, yet he took it upon himself to scramble at the last minute and join the team in New York.
How many star players in the NHL and many of the other professional leagues would have taken the week off with pay?
In an earlier interview with the AJC Thrashers beat writer Chris Vivlamore, Kovalchuk said, “It’s tough to watch from upstairs. It’s tough because you can’t help.”
Kovalchuk has a strong desire to win. He has spoken about it many times over the years but when you witness what we have this season, his performance, his expedited rehab of the injury, his actions speak volumes.
Kovalchuk craves to contribute on the ice, there’s clearly a fire lit and along with the talent comes additional great leadership qualities.
People cringe when Kovalchuk drops his gloves to come to the defense of a teammate; that is not his place on the team. Enforcer Eric Boulton and Chris Thorburn normally oblige to opportunities like that; but that is what great captains and leaders sometimes do.
I remember attending a game in Detroit in 1987 when Red Wing captain Steve Yzerman dropped his gloves to come to the aid of his goaltender after Buffalo tough-guy Kevin Maguire leveled the Red Wings goalie. Red Wings enforcer Bob Probert was on the ice but was held off by the linesmen so Yzerman made his way over to Maguire, threw ‘em down and went a few rounds.
I do not condone players like Kovalchuk and Yzerman risking injury fighting; their place is on the scoring sheet, but again, great leaders step up at unscripted times throughout their careers.
Here’s that Yzerman incident:
The Thrashers have a great leader in Kovalchuk. He’s a man with a vision and his leading by example can only benefit this young team.
Whether Kovalchuk skates tonight or not, for unselfish reasons he has shown a burning desire to get back on the ice and lead his team to the next level and bring the NHL Playoffs back to Philips Arena come April 2010. That in itself should be a motivation for the Thrashers in New York tonight.
Editor’s Note: Kovalchuk did play in New York and tallied 1 goal and 2 assists in a 5-3 win for the Thrashers.
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