COLOGNE – He scored the game winner in the 2008 World Championship final in Quebec City, and in 2009, when Russia defended their title, he averaged most ice time on the team. Sounds like a player who’s got what it takes, right? The ability to deliver in a crunch situation and the willingness to work hard, and lead by example. Also, he seems to have earned the coach’s trust.
So when Alexei Morozov couldn’t make the World Championship due to an injury, it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise to see coach Vyacheslav Bykov name Ilya Kovalchuk the team captain.
It wasn’t one to his teammates.
“I wasn’t surprised, he’s one of our best players, our leader, and in the absence of Morozov, he was a natural choice,” says defenceman Denis Grebeshkov.
For Kovalchuk, wearing the ‘C’ on his chest wasn’t anything completely foreign, after all, he was the captain of the Atlanta Thrashers his last year with the team. He first served as one of five alternate captains until the alternates collectively requested to general manager Don Waddell and coach John Anderson for Kovalchuk to take over the captaincy.
"For me, Ilya being the captain was nothing new," says Maxim Afinogenov, his Atlanta teammate, smiling.
"He always brings the leadership to the dressing room. He's a good captain who shows his leadership on the ice, and that's what's most important for us. That's what he should do," he adds.
Being a captain on an NHL team is similar to being the Russian national team’s captain, says Kovalchuk.
“There’s no real difference. (To captain Russia) is a big honor for sure but you need to have 22 leaders if you want to win this tournament. You have to stand up and take charge sometimes but we have so many great players here it is very easy to be captain of this team,” he says.
Some players like to stand up and talk, other stand up and show the way. Kovalchuk can do a little bit of both.
“He leads by example. He always works hard, and he cares about the game so much. He wants to win every game, and in the dressing room, he always stays positive and tries to help the others,” says Grebeshkov.
That, too, may be a surprise to many fans and commentators. Kovalchuk is often described as a selfish sniper who’s more interested in how many points he’s scored in a game than in the number of points his team goes away with.
Afinogenov disagrees with the image.
"I think he works hard in every shift of every game. He's a hard working guy both ways," he says.
“Maybe he’s got a reputation of being an undisciplined player, but the truth is that he wants to win every battle every second of the game. He won’t accept losing. That’s the way he’s playing right now, just like Alexander Ovechkin. They’re both playing passionate hockey,” Grebeshkov adds.
Just the fact that Kovalchuk is playing for Russia in Germany is special. After all, Kovalchuk will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, looking to sign one of the biggest NHL contracts ever. Many other players have declined to play in the tournament citing their contract status - a free agent status - as the reason.
But Kovalchuk is here, chasing a third consecutive gold medal.
“He’s a real team player, he’s not at all selfish. But he’s a goal scorer and he needs to get the puck and shoot them in. That’s his game. We need him to score goals, and that’s how he should play,” Grebeshkov says.