BY DAVE STUBBS
MONTREAL — Alex Kovalev, still a decade from what he jokes (we think) will be the expiration of his pro hockey shelf-life, loves the idea of wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey once more.
So with that suggestion on the table, made during a wide-ranging half-hour chat as he prepared to fly his own plane into Montreal for his fifth-annual charity golf tournament on Monday, Kovalev shared a few more thoughts.
‹ He pulled the plug/had his plug pulled this past season not yet midway through his two-year contract in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League when management of his Atlant Moscow Oblast club told him they could buy him out then, or simply cancel the second year of his pact.
Kovalev had been hobbled by a meniscus-mangled knee that he finally had surgically repaired by his doctor back in Pittsburgh, and said his recovery didn’t match the pace demanded by the brass.
“I didn’t want to play for a team that didn’t want me, so that was pretty much it,” he said, one goal, five assists and minus-13 to show for his 22 KHL games.
‹ Hockey in Russia “is kind of a crazy business,” Kovalev said. “It’s hard to enjoy it. Come to practice and you don’t know what’s going to happen to you. It’s not totally about hockey. I’d been there for a year in 2005 (during the NHL lockout) and saw how they treat the players. You have no idea.”
Nevertheless, Kovalev opted for the KHL deal last summer, preferring the apparent security of two years over the single-year deals he said he’d been offered by a couple of unspecified NHL teams.
‹ On how, from a distance, he viewed the Montreal Canadiens’ implosion this past season: “You can call it a disaster. It kind of worried me a little because it’s always been a good organization. It’s strange that they went from being a good team (in 2010-11) to a season when everybody just disappeared.”
(Not everybody, Kovy, but some, yes.)
‹ On whether, turning 40 next February, he still believes that he can – as he’s often said – play until he’s 50: “Easily. Even playing in Russia, you’re better than most of the kids out there, but there was nowhere to use it (having fallen out of favour with his own club).”
Which comes full circle to our first paragraph.
As an unrestricted free agent come July 1, would Kovalev seriously consider a return to the NHL? And if so, would he have a jersey preference?
“Hopefully, I’ll find an NHL team,” he said. “The preference is always going to be a team I’ve played on (Canadiens, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators) because you know the environment.
“And I’d definitely like to come back to Montreal. They’re all about the young guys, but I can help in all different ways. And I can still play. I have a lot of energy.
“I always think about having left Montreal,” he said of signing a two-year, $10-million UFA contract with Ottawa in July 2009, having played four-plus seasons with the Canadiens.
“You make a mistake in life and you learn from it. I would make a different move if I could have that back.”
That summer, depending on your source, Kovalev agent Scott Greenspun failed to contact the Canadiens before then-GM Bob Gainey began his dramatic rebuilding, or Gainey was so vague about deadlines for the two sides to speak that a phone never rang before he moved.
A free-agent flood poured into Montreal and Kovalev soon was washed down the highway towards Ottawa, leaving a big piece of his heart in Montreal.
Kovy lifted you out of your seat with excitement some nights – ask those who held a spirited rally outside the Bell Centre before he signed with the Senators – and sent you home maddeningly frustrated by his ghostly apparition on others.
But he was never, ever dull, something that’s not changed in the two years he’s been gone. And Kovalev still gets a kick out of being recognized in Montreal, toying with those who think they’ve spotted him as they trail him down the street, their calls to him ignored – just for awhile.
No doubt Kovalev will be talking plenty of hockey on Monday at St. Rapha’l Golf Club. His annual city tournament is the primary fundraising vehicle of the Kovalev and Friends Foundation for Kids, which he co-founded in 2008 with Quebec pediatric heart surgeon Suzanne Vobecky.
Indeed, the foundation still operates out of Montreal, even if Kovalev admits it’s not easy to headquarter the effort in a city that’s no longer his home.
Sick and underprivileged children, particularly those with weak hearts or cardiac problems, have long been dear to the Russian. Struck with heart problems as a boy in Togliatti, Kovalev would become a Stanley Cup champion with the Rangers in his 1992-93 NHL rookie year and play 1,302 regular-season games, 314 of them with the Canadiens, before last summer signing a two-became-one-year KHL deal.
Kovalev’s foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve the lives of children who suffer from heart disease. A key initiative: his summer camps in Quebec and Russia to brighten these kids’ days.
The foundation also provides needy children in remote regions the same cardiac care afforded others who live near medical centres; boosts young patients’ self-esteem during and after treatment; and trains heart surgeons in a number of countries in pediatric surgery techniques.
“When you see these kids happy, you see that you’ve done something good for them,” Kovalev said. “That makes me smile, too. Most important for me is for people to think of me as that person, not as a hockey player.
“I had good times and bad times, but they were always memorable. I can’t forget the love of Montreal fans and the help from the people who made my life easier.”
Kovalev’s NHL career (until now) ended meekly, the Senators dealing him to the injury-decimated Penguins on Feb. 24, 2011 – his 38th birthday – for a conditional seventh-round draft pick.
A couple of unspecified one-year NHL offers then were spurned for what he expected would be two KHL seasons.
Kovalev says his agent has suggested that an NHL-dialed phone might not ring before late August, depending on how teams build rosters in this month’s draft and via free-agency, beginning July 1.
And, of course, there’s the NHL’s uncertain labour landscape.
No matter, Kovalev says. He’ll be ready if and when the call comes.
“I’m working hard, training three times a week and keeping in shape,” he said. “Hopefully, somebody will get interested.
“I’m playing a lot of tennis, working out three hours a day. I feel bad about myself if I don’t do something for a couple weeks. I start hating myself. I like to feel energetic and powerful even when I just walk around.”
Montreal, Kovalev says, would remain a wonderful destination – not that GM Marc Bergevin would necessarily see that as a road the club would wish to travel.
“I know what my goal is,” Kovalev said. “I know what I have to do. If you want it enough, you make changes.
“Montreal fans aren’t stupid. They see inside the locker room even if they’re not inside the team. They know hockey. They’ve lived it their whole lives. They know when somebody’s trying or cares, or isn’t trying or doesn’t care.”
Of course, Canadiens fans very strongly felt both ways about the enigmatic, compelling Kovalev during his time in Montreal, and he knows it.
But that was then. He’d be delighted now to let them have a fresh look and cast another ballot.