The Interview: Ilya Kovalchuk (NHL)

As a new feature for Perfectionist Wannabe, I present The Interview. Here, I am sharing the stories of the people I’ve met over the years. These stories go back to the start of my professional writing career, when I was a beat reporter covering the New Jersey Devils (NHL) for Inside Hockey. Over the decade following my hockey writing career, I interviewed authors and filmmakers. Now? The Interview season begins and you will find a whole new crop of interviews from the people who made their dreams come true. These are the interviews that will help inspire you and maybe learn something new.

The Crazy Ride Ilya Kovalchuk Took Me On

Looking back on the interview I am presenting below, I still shake my head at everything that happened while I covered Ilya Kovalchuk when he played for the New Jersey Devils. I do not know why this Russian chose me out of all of the reporters that covered the game of hockey, but he chose me.

Let me explain.

Kovalchuk appeared in the Devils locker room after a trade from the Atlanta Thrashers. Kovy is one of the best Russian players to ever play hockey. I did not say ‘the best.’ He is one of the best.

He came to the Devils right before the 2010 Winter Olympics. When I went around the locker room to interview the players about the upcoming Olympics, this was the moment he prepared me for what would eventually happen three years later.

I had asked him about being one of the Olympic ambassadors for Russia for the 2014 Sochi games. It was here that he explained that if the NHL did not choose to play in the 2014 Olympics, he would defect. It was expected that other Russian hockey stars (like Alexander Ovechkin) would also defect.

That was right before the Olympics in 2010. He prepared me.

At the end of the season, he was set to head to free agency. He was in his locker being interviewed by a Russian reporter. He looked at me and stopped the interview. He let me ask my question. I asked what everyone wanted to know. “Are you signing with the Devils?” He told me, “Yes.”

I never printed it. He told me that in March 2010.

By June, his agent contacted me. He asked why I never printed it (Kovalchuk was looking for the article). I explained that I’m not about to publish an article unless I had certain guarantees that what he told me was the truth. If I were to print he was planning on signing with the New Jersey Devils, I needed guarantees that was where he was going, because I am not in the business of writing rumors.

The main assurance I was given: Kovalchuk promised he would never lie to me. He kept his promise. He never did.

After the assurances were made, as well as his agent feeding me exactly what Kovalchuk wanted printed, I published the article. The LA Kings fans (at the time) believed they were getting Kovalchuk. Their General Manager was behind that rumor. He made them believe it was a done deal. There were articles saying, “Michelle Kenneth Thinks the Devils are Getting Kovalchuk.” They were vicious. They were mean. They made fun of me, and they slandered me, saying I was just like “Eklund” (who is actually a friend of mine that has a website that caters to the rumor mill). But if you are accused of being like Eklund, that’s actually not a nice slander word, especially when you are a woman who is trying to be respected in this male dominated industry of sports.

What they did to me while we waited for the announcement in July was horrible. Even the Devils players got wind of it.

I remember Patrik Elias reading the article and then reading my blog going…who is Kovalchuk talking to? There were things I had written that made it sound like I knew Kovalchuk very well…like I knew personal reasons why he would sign with the Devils. But then the New York Post would print something and it confused him. He knew Kovy was talking to someone. He just didn’t know which reporter. He would text Kovy and never received a return text.

When Kovalchuk signed, that’s when the team found out exactly who was feeding me my information to say Kovalchuk was signing with the Devils. He had given me the most coveted information in the entire NHL and I had known since March. NHL fans may remember that the summer of 2010 became the Summer of Kovalchuk because of his insane contract deal with the Devils that was rejected by the NHL. They negotiated it down to a 15-year $100 million contract.

When Kovalchuk’s son, Artem, was born, I got a text message telling me.

When I couldn’t be there at the news conference or the celebratory party after he signed with the Devils, the players made sure I was texted a photo.

Kovalchuk gave one of the only women in that locker room a huge opportunity. And I was hated for it.

David Clarkson (NHL) had complained to me at the beginning of the 2010-2011 season that I was always traveling with other teams. I never did a tour of duty with the Devils. So after whatever European trip I took with whatever teams that fall, I decided to do the California tour of duty with the team. That meant we were heading to San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles.

I showed up to the Anaheim game with a little sun. David asked me where I had been. I told him I went to Disneyland. He was like, “You went without me?” Yes. And I would do it again. LOL.

I say it that way, because I never allowed players to hang out with me.

When we finally headed to LA, I was met with harassment throughout the entire game. It was so bad, the players heard it from the ice. It wasn’t just about me. It was about me and Kovalchuk. Jamie Langenbrunner, who was the Devils captain at the time, was not happy over what they were saying about both of us. He tried to console me (and I never told him what happened, he heard it from the ice). He said that obviously they really wanted Kovalchuk, but apparently he was only talking to me. I printed the truth. They’re just mad because they did not like the truth.

I haven’t liked LA Kings fans since. [The irony is that Kovalchuk would later go play for the LA Kings.]

Sigh. That Kovalchuk. The journey he would take both of us on. This was just the beginning.

In 2013, faced with the NHL’s indecision of whether to allow players to go to the 2014 Olympic games in Sochi, Kovalchuk retired from the NHL to defect to Russia. Vladimir Putin was behind that. A few weeks after he retired, the NHL made their decision to go.

So what happens when fans get angry? They come at the hockey writer that they knew Kovalchuk spoke to. I had to explain that I had been saying since the 2010 Olympics that if the NHL did not decide to go to the Sochi games, Kovalchuk would defect. I told them that before he even signed that 15-year contract. And what happened? Putin gave him a cut-off date.

I still haven’t spoken to Kovy since he defected. I follow his wife on Instagram. But I haven’t reached out to him in all of these years, even after he came back to the NHL. Part of me wants to thank him for helping me in my career. The other part of me wants to say WTF. Why would you drag me through all of this with you? Why me?

Maybe some day we will run into each other and he can tell me.

The Interview

This interview is part of the growing up hockey series I liked to write and fans loved. Reading this again, I am actually impressed with the amount of research I did on Russia vs the NHL, especially centering around the time Kovalchuk was born.

I can’t remember if I got to the second part of the interview, but I remember him telling me that he knew he wanted to marry Nikol Andrazajtis when he was 18. He saw a music video for her all-girl singing group, Mirage, and he knew that was the woman he was marrying.

I used to tell him that on a scale of 10, his wife was definitely a 15. She’s super tall and like most Russian beauties, absolutely stunning.

In this interview, you will learn a little bit about Kovalchuk’s upbringing, along with the history of Russia vs the NHL. Frankly, I am amazed at what I learned in order to write this interview.

Kovalchuk: In the Beginning

Pub Date: September 6, 2011
Inside Hockey

In the beginning of every dream, there is that moment that defines us in our youth. It’s the place where we find our meanings in life. They are the things that shape us into who we are and creates our destined paths that we will follow in this lifetime.

Whether it was experiencing something magical with our own eyes or following in the footsteps of a parent, these are all things that help mold us and inspire us to become who we are today.

Born during the Cold War in 1983, Ilya Kovalchuk’s humble beginnings in life took place to the north of Moscow in a place called Kalinin, a medieval city with a population of over 400,000 people. Kalinin changed its name to Tver in 1990, shortly before the Cold War ended.

On the day Kovalchuk was born (April 15), Tokyo Disneyland opened its doors for the first time and the Islanders were leading the New York Rangers 2-0 in the Patrick Division Finals.

But in the US, the relations with the Soviets were still on the iciest of terms.

The New York Times reported back on April 15, 1983 that, “People tend[ed] to accept the President’s description of the Soviet threat but reject Mr. Reagan’s strategy for meeting it, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll. By about 3 to 2, those interviewed said they viewed the Soviet Union as a growing threat, but by an even bigger margin of 2 to 1 they felt that the American arms buildup would prompt only a further Soviet arms buildup and not in serious negotiations.”

It would still be another five years before the first Russian would be permitted to play in the NHL. Kovalchuk was born during a time when talks of being drafted by the NHL would result in a ban from playing hockey. Viktor Khatulev was drafted in 1975 by the Philadelphia Flyers. Soon afterwards, he was banned from playing hockey for five years after being in a fight during a game (the ban was later lifted in 1978). [Khatulev didn’t even know he was drafted by the Flyers until after the ban was lifted (1978)].

There were rumors that the ban was made in an effort to make an example of him, just in case any future Soviet players were considering disembarking to play in foreign countries. It was also an attempt to thwart the NHL from attempting to draft any future Russian hockey players.

This was the hockey world Ilya was born into… a Cold War where playing for a foreign country was betrayal to your homeland. This was a place and time where you played hockey for your country and no one else. Nationalism was instilled in each and every person from day one. It was the Cold War after all.

“I started to play when I was probably about four and a half. I started skating” Kovalchuk said of his early beginnings in hockey. “My dad convinced me to go to hockey school. It was the only one in my hometown, and I started playing.”

Valeri Kovalchuk, llya’s father, was a former Soviet pro basketball player, and one of Ilya’s most influential figures in his life. “[My dad], he [was] always with me. Hockey was his wholly favorite sport.”

Even though he was a pro basketball player, he was there every step of the way for his son out on the ice.

“He was skating with me all of the time. He was pretty good, actually. He was my challenge until like 12 years old… and then he [couldn’t] keep up with me anymore.”

Was llya the better hockey player at that age going up against his father?

With that slight smile of his where he pretends he’s not smiling, he responds in a very serious tone, “Yes. Yes, definitely.”

Ilya describes his family life as ‘normal.’ “It wasn’t any special family. My mom, she was a doctor. She works. My dad, he was director of [a] sport club. He got his own store. They spent a lot of time with me, nothing really special.”

Even though Valeri was a huge part of llya’s young hockey training, he didn’t influence his son’s decision to play hockey.

“He knows I wanted to play a top sport, so he asked me what I liked the most. At that age, probably, I didn’t understand. But he put me in all different stuff. I played a little tennis, a little basketball, a little soccer. But I liked hockey for some reason or another.”

One of the hockey players that Ilya has cited as being the reason why he wears number 17, Valeri Kharlamov, was not the reason why he became inspired to play hockey.

“No, not at that age,” he said. “When you’re four years old, you don’t even know those guys.”

His father ended up showing him a lot of tapes later on in his childhood of Kharlamov. “He passed away before I was born.”

Kharlamov died at the age of 33, in a car accident, just two years before Ilya was born. But it was that fondness that he saw his father have in Kharlamov that led him to wear his number 17.

“It was his favorite player. He showed me the videotapes. I think he’s one of the most dynamic players. He was great to watch, that’s for sure.”

Kovalchuk was five years old when the first Russian played in the NHL. At what point did the NHL factor into his decision on where he wanted to play?

“When I was 18, it was the best… it is the best league in the world, and all of the best players play here. So I was drafted and I decide to try for myself and play for the best league in the world.”

It wasn’t until 1994, at the age of 11, that Ilya got his first glimpse at an NHL game. It was the Stanley Cup playoffs … the year the Rangers won the Stanley Cup over the Vancouver Canucks. This win, of course, led to riots in Vancouver.

Who was Ilya cheering for?

“Vancouver, because [Pavel] Bure was playing there. At that time, Pavel scored a lot of goals and was one of the leaders on the team. I looked up to him.”

“[Bure’s] just one of the greatest players ever to play the game, I think. He’s just one of those guys that is fun to watch.”

[Ironically, Pavel’s father, Vladimir, an Olympic medalist swimmer, is a scout for the New Jersey Devils, and has been with the team for several years.]

Even though he watched these Russian hockey stars on television, they were not the ones that influenced him. Not even his father’s favorite player, Kharlamov, was an influence on him.

“I think the biggest influence on me is my dad… my parents, because I’m not that kind of guy who dreams about being someone [else] that has already done it and try to be the same.”

While Kharlamov was known as one of the greatest hockey players in the world, Kovalchuk did not aspire to be an even greater hockey player than him.

“You can’t compare players now and before that. He was one of the best in our generation. It’s just a different game right now. You can’t really compare. I never even think about it. You can’t be better than him. How are you going to compare who’s better? It’s impossible. It was a different time, different era, different tournament, everything was different.”

“There were greats in their time. We try to be as good as we can in our generation.” Was his dream to always be a hockey player?

“Yes. I wanted to play hockey. I wanted to play the best I can. In my hometown, we’ve got a men’s team that played as a professional team. When I was there, I liked to watch them. I wanted to be, maybe one day, in their position and try to get myself to play at their high level.”

He didn’t set his sights high with big aspirations of playing for one of the biggest leagues in the world. He set his humble dreams on his home team, because to him, they were the greatest team around.

Long before Kovalchuk caught the eye of scouts at the age of 15, he was no stranger to North America. He had visited America on several different occasions.

“We [had] a lot of tournaments here. We played in Minnesota with my Spartak team. We were like 10, 11, and 12. We were here a lot before I moved here.”

Did he like North America enough to want to move here?

“No. I never. It’s the best league here. I respect everything here, but my home is in Russia.”

Kovalchuk ended up leaving his hometown early in his teens to play for a team away from home in Moscow.

“I was playing in Moscow. My dad, he was driving me every time. I was practicing in my hometown with my team with two of the guys that were three years older than me. He was driving me to Moscow every Saturday and Sunday we had games. I would play for Spartak. But then there comes a time that you have to be with your team that you play for and practice with them, so then I moved to Moscow when I was 15.

“But then the men’s team in Spartak, the main team, was playing in the Super League at that time. Their coach told my dad that they want him to bring me up and practice with them… try to play. So I was playing, when I was 16, for the men’s team already.”

What was it like being away from his family so soon?

“It was different. It was a tough decision when my dad told me that we’ve got to do that. I think when you’re away from your parents, you’ve got to learn a lot of responsibilities and you grow up quicker.”

This entirely explains why Kovalchuk is wise and mature beyond his years.

His desire to want to play in the NHL and move to North America didn’t come until after he was drafted. “You can’t know for sure where you’re going to play. Everyone was saying that I leave too early. I was only eighteen. They said I should have played a couple more years in Russia and get better then come here. But I decided to go right away.”

Kovalchuk became the first Russian to be selected first overall in the NHL Entry Draft in 2001 by the Atlanta Thrashers. He created history in both the NHL and in Russia that day. After all, he was born into a time when being drafted by the NHL meant being banned from hockey in the Soviet Union, and there were no Russian players in the NHL.

Kovalchuk became the new future for Russian hockey players that day. He would lead the way as Russians became one of the hottest hockey commodities in the new generation of the NHL.