But Kovalev’s next challenge promises to be very different. This week he was appointed head coach of Kunlun Red Star, the KHL’s Chinese franchise. At a time when the club is surrounded by uncertainty – with a scant roster of 13 confirmed players and awaiting confirmation of its home arena for the coming campaign – he’s facing something of a baptism of fire in his first-ever head coach position.
Luckily, he’s never been a man to shirk a challenge.
“I was under pressure throughout my entire hockey career – and the greater the pressure, the better I performed,” he said in an interview with RIA Novosti. “Now, I hope it will be the same for me as a coach.”
The move behind the bench was unexpected. Kovalev has been involved in Beijing for the last two seasons as an assistant first to Jussi Tapola, then to Curt Fraser. But, as it became clear that visa and travel restrictions would make it difficult for Fraser to return and complete the contract extension agreed back in February, the club management asked Kovalev to take charge for the 2020/21 season.
That campaign is due to start on 2 September. At present, Kovalev is in New York, waiting for flights to resume so he can join the team and start preparations. Red Star will be unable to play in China due to the on-going restrictions against coronavirus, and the club is believed to be close to tying up a contract to play out of Arena Mytishchi, the second venue for the 2007 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship located on the outskirts of Moscow.
“Nothing is known officially at the moment,” Kovalev admitted. “In general, we’re waiting to confirm a lot of things, from the roster to the start of our training camps. It’s hard to sit back and see the other teams get back to training, especially when we don’t know what sort of team we have.
“We’re going to have to trust the individual players. After all, they are professionals and they should come to camp in more or less decent shape. But to do that, it’s already time to stop sitting at home and start getting fit. Then we’ll put them through an intensive program and try to do as much work as possible in the shortest time.”
Russians love to say that a coach has to eliminate his inner player before taking on the role. Kovalev, however, has no plans to do so.
“I’m not going to change [from when I was a player],” he added “It’s very important for me to share my thoughts with a player during the training process. You can talk and explain as much as you want, but when you show him by example it’s completely different. I grew up in hockey, I learned from watching the people around me: I looked at the top players, tried repeat the tricks of individual players. Now, when our guys can watch and learn something, it’s much easier and clearer.
“It’s one thing to be a good player, but being a good coach is completely different. Over the past couple of years, working on the coaching staff [at KRS] I’ve learned that this is a completely different job. Sure, it’s still hockey, but I have to prepare and execute entirely new strategies that require fresh knowledge. As before, I’m still in good shape. I wouldn’t say I could easily go out and play in a KHL game, but I expect to be a part of the training process right there on the ice. When that happens, I still feel like a player, so it’s easier for me to understand our guys and explain things to them.”
Before that, though, there are some recruitment issues to resolve. The current roster is threadbare and the only confirmed player news this summer was an extension for Czech goalie Simon Hrubec. The team is booked to play a warm-up tournament in St. Petersburg at the end of August and by then a roster that was once heavy on North American players – often with Chinese heritage – could be largely replaced with a more European and Russian line-up.
Despite the difficulties, though, Kovalev remains convinced that Red Star can do more than just make up the numbers in the KHL next season. Asked if the team’s aim was simply to stay afloat in the turbulent waters it currently faces, the new head coach was emphatic.
“For me there is only one goal – to win,” he said. “I love winning, I love being part of the action for as long as possible. It doesn’t matter whether I’m on the ice myself or sending out a team. Therefore Kunlun can only have one goal – to make the playoffs. I don’t care if we build a team with a lot of youngsters. If these guys want to play at the highest level, they need to prove themselves.”