Ilya Kovalchuk was 18 when he came to Atlanta. He was enormous, even then, listed at 6’2” and somewhere north of 200 lbs, but still so boyish-looking that Waddell joked he’d let his 12-year-old daughter make the pick. If so, Chelsea was one ballsy little girl, because she’d chosen the first Russian hockey player to ever go first overall. He showed up, there, in a southern American city, with teeth so bad that nine of them had to be extracted and English so bad he responded to on-ice insults with blank smiles. He understood pretty much nothing about the place he’d come to, or the culture, or the language. He only understood how to play, and how to score.
I wonder when he understood that his team was never going to win.
Hockey respects skill and it treasures toughness, but it loves only winning. There is no greater honorific title in the game than winner. It dignifies even the most marginal careers with the sheen of destiny; the smallest contributor on a Cup team becomes something more after, because he self-evidently knows how to win. And a player who has the good fortune to be a hot scorer on a Cup run? Well, that man could go out and get WINNER tattooed across his forehead in letters two-inches high and half the commentariat would think it no more than his due.
Hockey is a team game. We know this, and yet still we credit individuals with the quality of winner-ness. We talk about it sometimes as if it were something in the genes, like blue eyes or fast-twitch muscle, passed down in the bloodlines from father to son. Brooks Laich is not the only player in the NHL, not the only Good Canadian Boy grinding out in the corners and intoning the right cliches into the microphones, to draw a skeptical contrast between skill and winning. He’s not the only one to imply that skill is just so much pretty bullshit that distracts from the gritty, tough, shot-blocking, left-wing-locking, dumping-chasing business of victory. Hockey’s love of winning doesn’t just devalue skill- sometimes, inverted and perverted, it turns into contempt for skill. A player who is unskilled and never wins is just unlucky, a good lunch-pail guy who did his best and never caught a break. A player who is skilled and never wins, though, is eventually considered borderline defective. He’s not just unlucky, he’s fatally flawed.
That Ilya is skilled is beyond doubt. He is that most mysterious of creatures, the natural sniper, one of the precious few who can sustain the unsustainable shooting percentage. Defense in hockey is learned, the product of smarts and practice, but elite offense is a gift from the gods. It takes training to hone and practice to maintain, but a nose for the net is the one great skill that cannot be taught, not on any whiteboard ever manufactured, not by a million coaches drilling a million drills. Unfortunately for Ilya, it is this kind of natural skill that the hockey world most suspects of being the non-winning variety. It is the kind of flashy stardom the game has been guiltily attracted to since the days of Howie Morenz and self-righteously looked down on since the days of Conn Smythe.
Hockey is a team game. That must seem like a joke to some of these stars yolked to dire franchises like oxen to a covered wagon, expending all their sweat and strength and skill to pull a bunch of deadweight to barely better than a crawl. There are a lot of cruel things this game puts people through, but sometimes I think the cruelest is this: that a man might be gifted beyond reason, hard-working beyond duty, proficient beyond expectation, that a man might be a brilliant player his whole career, and still never win. Some people don’t win because they just weren’t good enough- that’s hard, but fair. Some people don’t win because they didn’t try hard enough- that’s justice. But sometimes… sometimes a guy is everything he should be and does everything he can, and it’s still not enough. Because hockey is a team game.
There are few jobs more literally Sisyphean in the world than being the best player on a terrible team. And they have to smile through it. No matter how incompetent the management, no matter how embarrassing this season, no matter how bleak the next, the franchise player has to keep smiling. Keep saying the right optimistic, determined things to the reporters. Keep training rigorously, keep skating hard, keep bleeding and breaking and struggling for a cause that’s already been lost up in the high offices before he so much as puts one shot on the net. Heaven forbid he cracks, even for a second, and says something critical to the media- shit-disturber, malcontent. Heaven forbid he checks out mentally, starts just going through the motions, trying to enjoy the other things in his life that aren’t a constant parade of losses- lazy, selfish. And woe unto he who expresses his discontentment and anxieties to his teammates- cancer, distraction. Everyone in hockey knows that the Islanders are a joke and a disaster, but if John Tavares even so much as whispered that they were maybe a bit flawed, his career would shatter around his head. There is not a person reading this article now who has the slightest bit of faith in the management of the Columbus Blue Jackets, there is not one among us who does not understand perfectly why Rick Nash wants out of that pit, but that didn’t stop him from getting called an asshole for admitting as much. If I were Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, I would lie awake nights praying for a beneficent aneurysm to come and destroy the higher reasoning centers of my brain, leaving only the hockey playing parts intact, so that at least I wouldn’t know anymore how inept my team’s management is, because it seems like the only available options for a player in such a position are to be miserable or to be oblivious. The only people in the entire hockey world who are absolutely prohibited from pointing out that a badly-run team is a badly-run team are the people whose careers that team is ruining. The people who will, eventually, have to carry the stigma of never having won anything.
Ilya, he did everything right, he played this ridiculous game of pretend-the-shitty-franchise-isn’t-shitty for eight years. The Thrashers told him to jump, and he said how high? The Thrashers kicked him in the balls, and he said yes, sir, may I have another? They told him to purge his teenage game of its reckless elbows and retaliatory charges, and he did. They told him to try to improve his defense, and he did. When they benched him, he worked harder. When they called him out, he proved himself. When they put the C on him, he embraced the responsibility. While the franchise around him explored every possible permutation of dismal failure and every known variety of disappointing collapse, while the Good Canadian Boy who’d won the Calder over him in their mutual rookie season brought down horror and scandal on the team, Ilya mounted solid season upon solid season, never playing less than 78 games, never scoring less than 68 points. Despite the language barrier, despite the criticisms of his defense and his work ethic, despite the helpless hopeless franchise he had to drag around like the Stone of Shame, he did everything right.
And what did he get for it? Four games of playoffs in seven seasons? He could have done everything right on that team for another eight years, and another eight after that, and never won. [N.B.: By this, I mean the Thrashers who are now dead and gone. I do not, like most, consider the new Jets to be the same team, so don't consider this to be a dire prognostication for the future of Winnipeg.] He could have gone into retirement stamped as just another skilled guy who didn’t know how to win, had he had the foolishness or sentimentality to sign long-term with such a team.
Thank the hockey gods he didn’t. There are a lot of terrible things about the UFA market- the ridiculous overvaluations, the cap-mocking contracts, the stilted banter on TSN as they desperately try to fill time in their chronically over-long broadcast- but at least it frees the Sisyphuses (Sisyphi?) of the NHL from their various personal Hades. It gives, finally, players the opportunity to find the team they want, be it the team in their favorite road city or the one that pays the best or the one where their friends play. And it gives them the chance to become winners- a chance that the draft system systematically denies the best prospects for nine full years.
As the teams dwindle in the postseason, a lot of viewers start to space out. Most of us got into hockey out of love for a team that’s golfing now. Most of our stories have ended. It’s easy to fall into watching playoff games between this and that indifferent Other Team with bored eyes, not really certain if it even matters who takes the Cup. A lot of us tune in now only because we know, come June, we’re going to miss this. We’re stocking up clips in our brains like squirrels preparing for a long, hot off-season, but most of the time, we barely even notice what were seeing. When your team is gone and only a few battered strangers remain, there just aren’t that many reasons to care anymore.
But of those that remain, one of the best is this: to see if Ilya Kovalchuk can finally win.