Friday, July 4, 2014

Alex Kovalev Quad Jersey Card

A story I deliberately skipped over yesterday when featuring this card of Eric Brewer was the fact that at age 41, after a series of injuries brought an end to his dream of playing until the age of 50, Alex Kovalev officially retired.

In the next few weeks, months, and perhaps even years, you will read and hear many conflicting things about Kovalev, most of them true at first. Then, as with every legend, both sides will embellish their stories and make them bigger and bigger until he is inevitably dubbed Hockey's Dr. Jeckyll.

I'll say this, right now: did he have a tendency to take two or three nights off per week? Short answer: yes. In fact, though, the more honest answer would be this: never in important games, never in the playoffs, never when sporting a letter (be it the captain's 'C' or the alternate's 'A') on his chest, and never in front of an adoring hometown crowd cheering him on. And rarely when he could take center stage.

Which led to a Stanley Cup in 1994 with the New York Rangers, playing on Mark Messier's line in his second NHL season; a 44-goal and 95-point season with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2000-01, prompting none other than Mario Lemieux to claim he had the ''best hands he'd ever seen'', from a guy who may have been the most talented player ever to play and who played alongside Wayne Gretzky, Jaromir Jagr, Joe Sakic, and Sidney Crosby.

But some of his greatest feats came while he was a member of the Montréal Canadiens. His 10 points in 11 playoff games when he was first traded to the team started a fiery romance with the Montréal faithful that struck him deeply. And though he had a down year after his favourite center - Mike Ribeiro - was traded, once he found and learned to appreciate everything Tomas Plekanec could do, he was back on track, with a 35-goal, 84-point season. He was the best forward at the 2005 World Championships - from an especially deep talent pool considering the NHL was locked out and every country could send its best players to play.

He made the playoffs 4 times with the Habs, each time producing around the point-per-game mark. But his greatest show was at the 2009 All-Star Game, played in front of his hometown crowd with 4 other Habs, captaining the Eastern All-Stars despite the team also boasting Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin, and with his 2-goal, 1-assist performance plus the game-winning goal in the shootout, he was named the MVP ahead of all the other stars.

If there was a spotlight, he wanted it to be on him, and he made it happen.

And that is why the Habs let him wear the 'C' when Saku Koivu was injured, despite never having done so before in Koivu's storied yet injury-riddled career. He wasn't just a capable leader, he wanted to be the guy that was counted upon, he took pride in leading the way, and he wouldn't take a night off - despite his reputation - if he knew he was the go-to guy. In that respect, he was the ultimate end-of-communism-era Russian, military-like in his sense of duty, pride and determination.

When it comes to sheer talent, pure ability, he was in the top-5 of the last 20 years.

Look at this goal, scored without a helmet, Guy Lafleur-style:

And here's a top-10 that I kind of disagree with, as some of the middle positions aren't as spectacular as a few of his other goals, but added to the one above gives a great idea of the extent to which he could do as he pleased in all aspects of puck control:

But he also had a mean streak, and recognized when to step the anger in his game up against the right opponents, as seen here taking revenge for an intentional sucker-punch to the head from the Toronto Maple Leafs' Darcy Tucker:

All told, Kovalev retires with Olympic gold (1992) and bronze (2002), World Juniors gold (1992), World Championships bronze (2005), a Stanley Cup and 100 career playoff points, over 1000 regular-season points on 430 goals and 599 assists, having scored 100 goals for three separate teams, 1304 penalty minutes in 1316 games, three All-Star Games (and one MVP title), the World Championships' ''best forward'' title for 2005, and as the first Russian ever chosen in the first round of an NHL draft.

He retires following a 22-goal and 52-point season in 44 games in Switzerland. Not too shabby.

And I have a great card to commemorate a great player, from Upper Deck's 2008-09 Black Diamond collection, card #BDJ-KO in the set, a Quad Jersey card with four distinct pieces of jersey - three white and one red - showing him in the Habs' classic red (home) uniform in front of a simple yet beautiful signature UD design:
I wasn't convinced at first, but he really does wear the bleu-blanc-rouge very well.

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