ONE-ON-ONE WITH ALEX KOVALEV
A version of this article first appeared as the cover story of Спорт-Экспресс under the title, “‘Я зол на Крикунова. Вообще не уважаю его’. Интервью-бомба Алексея Ковалева.”
For someone tagged with the title of an “enigma” throughout his playing career, Olympic and Stanley Cup champion Alexei Kovalev is remarkably blunt on virtually any topic. From a video game addiction that impacted his play to a disagreement with former Russia coach Vladimir Krikunov, the man they call AK-27 sat down with me in Shanghai for a two-hour discussion. With dazzling skill that still characterizes his playing career, Kovalev’s legacy appears more concrete than the tired adjective so often used to define him.
Sport-Express (SE): Sergey Samsonov said that you were the most technically gifted hockey player he has ever played against. Evgeny Kuznetsov said that there is not a single person who measures up to your skill. Did you ever play against someone whose skills you felt were superior?
Alexei Kovalev (AK): No. I’m just being honest. Every time I played the game as a little kid or when I got older, I never felt like kids feel these days that they doubt themselves or they feel scared because the other team is bigger. For me, every game was like “let me show how much I can embarrass these guys, how good I am. Get to the point where they are chasing me around, and I would be laughing.” That’s the kind of mentality I had, and that’s how much confidence I had in what I could do.
Compared to young kids these days, you don’t see that kind of confidence much anymore. When I watched players play, there was that ego: “I am the one, showing everyone how fast hockey has to be played.” Now everyone is ranked evenly, maybe one a bit better than the other—but there’s no one character like, “holy shit - you have to watch this guy.”
SE: So your confidence was key - but surely there were more elements that separated you from everyone else.
AK: I designed my hockey around science. I worked with figure skaters, speed skaters. That’s why I never had groin or back problems. Going into puck-handling and skills, I watched other players and analyzed. I tried my own ways—how could I be more unpredictable or more effective? I analyzed things that I could change if other teams knew what I could do. That’s how much I designed my style. I have so many different ways to look at hockey and prepare for every moment. For me, of course, it’s hard to analyze my own game. There’s nothing to it. It’s like, why does everyone think there is something special about me? It’s just because I am capable of doing it.
I’m 45 and I play with these younger guys, but I still have that character: come to me, and I’ll show you how to play it.
SE: It feels like the word “enigma” was invented the day that you stepped onto the ice, because suddenly every coach and journalist used it to describe you.
AK: It’s funny…I still couldn’t figure out, even at the end of my career, [why] I was called that. Maybe at first, I thought this word had some negative meaning but it probably hadn’t. Anyway, I think part of it was jealousy from coaches or media to create an atmosphere: “Oh one day he plays, the next day he doesn’t play. Nobody knows what to expect from him.” Everyone knew how good I was, but nobody tried to understand what environment I was in—what coaches did I have? I needed a good environment to show my skills.
One of the best experiences I had was in Pittsburgh—when I came and they said, “we aren’t going to do anything with you. You know how to play hockey—we’ve seen it. Play the way you know how.”
And then I switched teams, and it started all over again. I don’t know the reason. People watched the games and they saw what I needed. Maybe it’s just because of who I am—coming from Russia, different world, different culture. Maybe it’s because I am so talented that it just drives people nuts. They’d say, “he can do this, so maybe he can do that.” I couldn’t understand why I’d have to do it, because it didn’t make sense. When I sat on the bench, I always analyzed why the coach was making certain moves. What was he trying to achieve from that movement, and why did he send that line out next?
I’m still looking to see from younger kids what they can do, what they can change to make things easier and to be more successful. Analyzing the game—a lot of players don’t analyze it properly, they’re looking for answers in the wrong places. That’s when we come in. My game is so advanced and scientific—I can see those things, and pick them up really quick.
Once with the [Kunlun] strength and conditioning coach, we sat on the bench during practice. I said, “pick me one player—I don’t know his problems, but I’ll watch and tell you what issues he has.” He’d pick the guys one-by-one and I’d say, “groin problem, back problem.” I don’t even know, but I can tell right away. That’s how much I know in detail about hockey. But people don’t understand that. That’s one of the reasons it drives people crazy.
That’s the only way to describe why people call me an enigma. Just let me play; I have so much talent and I’ve shown it many times, so why does this keep happening? The only answer that comes to my mind is just because I am Russian, from another country.
SE: You’ve won virtually everything, but there’s one accolade you don’t have: the Art Ross Trophy. Did specific circumstances prevent you from achieving it, or was it never a goal of yours?
AK: Being a young kid, it was always about individual effort. When you get to a professional level, it was important to be nice to someone else. How about I do all the work, and pass someone by the empty net? How happy that person would be. That’s why I started to play and concentrate on the team game. I’ll just do whatever is best for the team. If it falls into place and I win something, that’s great; if not, it’s another chance to try again. I never think about all of the trophies. For me, it’s a team sport and that’s why I picked this. Otherwise, I could have done tennis or whatever individual sport and worry about my winnings. But there’s nothing better than winning national championship, the Stanley Cup or Olympics and having 25 guys around you and celebrating. Team wins—you can’t replace that celebration.
SE: Of all the celebrations you’ve had, which one was the most meaningful?
AK: Most important for me was the  Olympics because I’m Russian and it was for the country, especially given the situation we were in back then. But of course I cannot take a Stanley Cup away. After fifty-four years, to be part of that history—it was impressive and something to remember.
The Olympic celebration went so quick, plus we were in a different country. We were celebrating one place to another, we traveled, celebrated at the airport—and then we got in the car and everything stopped in one moment. And then I was just going home by myself, with my family—that’s it.
The Stanley Cup was different. I didn’t sleep for four days. They asked me to do the [opening pitch] at the Yankees game, and I was like, “I’m sorry—I have to fly home and go to sleep.” So I passed on that. The celebration just went on and on and on.
SE: When you competed in the 1992 Olympics, you were sent as a “Unified Team.” Standing on the podium, it was the Olympic Anthem that played and a white flag was raised. Did it make the win bittersweet at all?
AK: In one way, it did. Being nineteen years old, in some ways you don’t really understand or care about it. Medal on my chest—that’s all that matters, and I knew who I was. But we all knew in our hearts where we came from, and where we were born. At that time—what was on my mind—was everything that Russia gave to me, starting from my coach. Everyone maybe experienced that. We didn’t have a country, we didn’t have anything to think about or remember. We didn’t have anything written on that plain jersey, and an Olympic national anthem—what else can you think of? Whatever is in your heart—you think of who you are, and where you came from.
SE: You’ve mentioned that you were obsessed with computer games as a teenager. Patrick Laine said that when he gave up Fortnite, his point rate improved. Did gaming ever get you into trouble?
AK: When I came to the NHL, I was a maniac. I had a Super Nintendo with the cartridges you were always changing. I had—and I’m not lying—about 35 or 40 games lying around the floor. When I woke up in the morning, I’d have breakfast while playing a game. Sometimes I’d be late for practice just to finish a level. After practice, I’d play again for 5-6 hours, get something to eat, and then play again sometimes late into the night. It was really bad. It got to the point where it was affecting my game. Not sleeping, I’d forget things I needed to do on the ice. It was almost like you were going brain dead, and couldn’t remember what you usually do. At first, I thought maybe I was tired and needed to get more sleep. Then I realized sitting on the bench, I’d sometimes think about the game on the computer and not the hockey game. That’s when I realized it was going in the wrong direction. At one point, I came home, unplugged it and threw it away. I didn’t touch it at all until my kids were born.
SE: Do you play with your kids now?
AK: These days, the games are so advanced. I’m getting motion sick! In the old days, it wasn’t 3-D with people looking so real, different angles. It makes me dizzy, I start sweating and go pale. Something happened to me when I realized that [video games] really impacted hockey. I literally just came home and unplugged the console because it hit my head so hard. Even when my kids started playing, OK I can show them how to play it — but then I walk away. I’m not trying to fight myself, I just don’t want it anymore.
SE: You’ve played in a few Olympics, but not all ended in celebration. In 2006, you had a conflict with Russia head coach Vladimir Krikunov. Did you reconnect this season given that you’re both now KHL coaches?
AK: I have never really talked to him since then, and I’ve seen a lot of articles where he’d tell them—I guess he’s trying to back himself up—that “if not for this guy, we could have done better.” He still has that in his mind. For me, it’s more important that we had a good team, a team that could win—and we didn’t have good guidance. Of course it pisses me off and stays in my head. It was a good opportunity, and those opportunities don’t come easily. Every chance, every moment a player gets — he wants to use the maximum. It was disappointing…and of course I never let it go out of my head.
I’m still mad at that person; I don’t respect that person at all. Even after all those years, he didn’t accept his mistakes and at the same time continuously blames players. It’s not the right thing to do. I just leave that up to him. If he’s that kind of person—that’s fine.
SE: If you could have one night of your career to do over, which would it be?
AK: There are a lot of games, but the one that first comes to mind—because we already mentioned Krikunov—is when we beat Canada 2-0 and lost to Finland after that.
SE: What would you have done differently?
AK: Being the captain, I would probably have prepared the team better. And of course, it would have put more of an effect on the coach. We sat there not saying anything until it got really bad, and then we started putting pressure. It got to the point where Kasparaitis stood up and just said, “put this guy on the ice.” We just quit on the game. I would definitely change that.
Another game was when we played against Canada during the lockout year. We were losing 4-2, 4-1. We scored two goals and it became close—and I missed an opportunity right in front of the net. The puck was almost on the line and I dove. My stick went over the puck and I missed it. It would have been 4-4 and that would have been a great opportunity to win the World Championship.
The reason this game comes to mind is because I didn’t get to the triple gold club—I’m missing a World Championship medal. I won a Junior World Championship, but the opportunities I had [at Worlds]—I missed it.
ON COACHING, AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE KHL & NHL
SE: Before the season, you said it would be difficult to estimate Russia’s hockey development because you hadn’t been here for a while. You’ve coached almost an entire season now, so—what do you think about the KHL?
AK: Of course, since I last played in Russia, everything has improved. How hockey is taken care of by management, the people who work for the organizations…everything has really improved, almost to NHL style. Players don’t have to carry their stuff, management takes care of their bags and everything else.
Travel—we didn’t have charters back then, we always had to take commercial. We had to sit in airports for hours and hours and if planes got delayed, we slept in the airport. All that has been improved a lot.
Style—in the old days, we had a lot of Russian players that played in the KHL. Now we have more international players and you can see the mix. Guys that already had experience in the NHL bring that here. And of course, hockey becomes more popular because of that. You see different skills, different looks of every team. I remember leaving Russia and popularity was going down. At one point, it started going back up, and that’s why all the import players started coming to Russia.
I still believe—and I’ve said it many times—that hockey would be more fun to watch if they made the ice smaller like the NHL. I guess they think differently—maybe bigger ice makes it easier to see the flow, and players try to use the entire ice surface to make plays. But I think you’ll see better skills on a smaller ice surface and the game becomes faster.
SE: It’s funny that you bring this up, because you’ve criticized the watchability of the NHL. Has your mind changed at all?
AK: Well, I still feel the same way because it has changed a lot versus the days when I played. You used to see guys being creative, making the play and not giving up the puck too easily. Now, of course, the rule changes have had a big effect because of all that hooking and grabbing…you have to somehow avoid that, but by avoiding it, you need to be moving your feet and making give-and-go passes. Now, you have two guys swinging at 100 miles per hour with a pass…you go the entire length of the ice, and he’s already in the zone. You aren’t going to see much creativity anymore.
Some of the teams that have older players like Pittsburgh and Chicago try to be creative. But mostly, all of that creativity comes in the offensive zone. What involves the neutral and defensive zone is one pass that goes full-speed, one tip, and boom.
One time, I took my kids to watch the Rangers. I couldn’t even pinpoint one player to watch. Usually you teach your kids by pointing out one person: watch how he moves, how he handles the puck, makes passes. One shift we watched, even my kids noticed—the puck touched the ice for maybe ten seconds. The rest of time, it was up in the air. It’s like a soccer game. I just wish the NHL would be a little bit more creative like the old days. Everyone understands that the game is changing, and we’ll be talking about different things five, ten years from now.
SE: But you can now influence the game as a coach. We don’t see a lot of Russians or Europeans managing NHL teams, for example. Did you consider staying there after you retired?
AK: In the beginning, when I retired, I didn’t feel that I wanted to coach or go back to hockey because I spent so much time and dedicated my entire life to it. Of course, when you retire, you don’t really want to feel, or see or talk about hockey. But when your mind and body rest, you start teaching kids here and there—then private lessons, and then you start thinking about going back to hockey. And the only way to get close to hockey again is coaching.
When I was in talks with [Kunlun], it didn’t matter for me to be a head coach or assistant coach. I just wanted to help guys. I want to transfer my knowledge to somebody else, and see how it helps them and makes them happy. The unique part is that I am still able to show on the ice, not just talk about it. A lot of times, you sit with the player and you can tell by the look in his eyes that he does not completely understand everything. For me, when we go on the ice, I can show them what I’m talking about.
SE: You keep referencing being out on the ice. I remember you said that you wanted to play until the age of 50. Kunlun has had a lot of injuries lately…any talk of getting back out as a player?
AK: That was an idea actually, and I said I wouldn’t mind to play a few games. [Kunlun] tried to put me in the roster on the deadline [Dec 27th], but we ran out of time and didn’t get me in. I said that if they wanted to just keep me on the roster, just in case something happens…that’s what I did in Switzerland when I worked as a GM and sport director. One time, because of the division where I worked, we were only allowed two imports. In the middle of the season, one of the imports got hurt and we couldn’t find anyone. Players that we found were too expensive, so I offered to go out and they could decide on the money—I didn’t need to get paid much. I played in eleven games, and it was fine. It was actually cool because it was a good opportunity for the players to see how I play too. After those games, some of [our] players were mimicking things and even details of how they blocked passes, how they shot, how they handled the puck…some guys were trying to do it the same way. So that’s one of the advantages. Also, when I was able to show in real life how I see the game, they came back to the bench and said, “holy shit, how did you do this?” Years of practice – that’s how!
SE: Is there anything about coaching that has surprised you?
AK: When dealing with team sports, and I think I said it when we had a conversation earlier in the season, you have to look at this as a family. It’s the only way you can work in team sports—you have two families, one at home and one here. Times in my career when we didn’t have that, there was a separation between coaches and the team. Players pull in one direction, coaches pull in the other. There’s confusion and you could see things fall apart.
You need to get a feel for each player and what he needs. For example, sometimes a player needs to talk about something or get his stress out. You need to be close to players to understand what they need and what they want. Then you can make your own judgement. That’s what I learned the most—the connection between coach and players is important. Plus when you have different nationalities on the team, it could go to disaster. What impresses me with [Kunlun], for example, is that you have nine different languages and some struggles in the beginning, but the guys are still pulling, hoping and believing that they can get somewhere. If you can have that atmosphere, you can have a good team and success.
SE: When you become a parent, you can often hear your own parents’ voices coming out of your mouth when you discipline your kids. As a coach, do you ever hear one of your former coaches influencing the way you talk to players?
AK: Being a parent, everyone makes adjustments. Of course, some parents are the same as their parents were to them. But life is changing, and we have access to different things. For example, as a kid, I loved going to the woods and doing cross-country skiing with my family. Making my kids do that is probably not easy now because they want to get a few more levels on their video games. But maybe I should try one day. Anyway, you always keep something from what you’ve learned and make adjustments, mainly because you felt certain things at the time. If I didn’t feel right with what a coach told me that one time, why would I say that to the kids I am teaching? You find a solution for how to make it more understandable. If my coach yelled and screamed at me on the bench because I didn’t do something right, is that going to help kids these days? It didn’t help me and I was just pissed off. Instead of doing that, I spend fifteen minutes talking to a player and explaining what I want from him.
ON THE STATE OF HOCKEY & TEAM RUSSIA
SE: The 2020 World Cup has been canceled, and you’ve played in a few yourself. Were these tournaments that players took seriously?
AK: It was always an important tournament. In the old days, we even had the European Championships on top of the Olympics and the World Championships…a lot of tournaments. I can’t really tell you why or which way would be better. Of course, the Stanley Cup and the Olympics always stay as the main events. It’s disappointing to see the NHL not allowing players to play in the Olympics, but at the same time it’s understandable. As a player, it’s definitely not easy. But again—how many times do the Olympics happen? Players can take it just to do something for their country.
SE: Former Canadian players Paul Bissonnette and Ryan Whitney were discussing the World Junior Championships and the World Cup recently. They said that they believed the top 4 nations were Canada, the USA, Finland and Sweden. Do you agree that Russia is left out?
AK: No. I don’t believe those guys anymore. They might be knowledgable guys, but again…I don’t know which way they are analyzing each team. I would be interested to hear what they would say to me if I said, “tell me what’s wrong with the Russian team.” I’m just curious what they would tell me about it. I definitely don’t agree with that, but for me, one answer is that they just don’t like something about Russia. It’s a politics thing.
SE: If we staged the World Cup of hockey tomorrow, how do you think Russia would do?
AK: I would say we’d be in the top three. Being honest, I am not going to say we’d be number one, the first, the best team. But we’d be top three.
SE: Alex Ovechkin is about to break Sergei Federov’s record of the top Russian scorer in the NHL. Do you consider him the best Russian of all-time in NHL history?
AK: For me, I am a different person. Nothing against Alexander—he’s a great player, a good scorer and everything. But I always look out for players that have got the complete package: a good scorer, good playmaker, good skater, defensive player…someone who can do a lot of different things, and is a flashy player because of that. Take Federov—he was always a noticeable person, every time he played. Of course Ovechkin is noticeable, but he’s noticeable from the goals he scores. But if you’re watching Fedorov, Datsyuk, Malkin—you can see their personality, there’s not one thing that they can’t do. For me, that’s how I place good players. [Ovechkin] is a good scorer and has a great shot, good physical contact and play…but for me, a complete player is more important.
SE: So who is your top pick among the Russians?
AK: I’d pick two guys, if I can—Fedorov and Datsyuk. It’s not just about one big shot—the way they skate, handle the puck, beating guys, set up the plays. Like the old days watching the Red Army line—that kind of creativity, sense and understanding of the ice.
SE: Which of these has the most prized place in your house—Olympic gold, your Stanley Cup ring or the lucky troll?
AK: They’re all living somewhere in a drawer—I don’t even know where they are! I don’t put them outside for everyone to see.
SE: So the troll has been lost again?
AK: No, the troll is in his place somewhere, but I don’t have a lot of stuff out. Recently, I got my medals out of the bag to show the kids. It’s cool for them to see. Before that, they were all in a bag somewhere and I was searching for them. Same thing with the Stanley Cup ring—it was in a box.
I don’t know, definitely you can’t take away the Stanley Cup because of how many years it took for the Rangers to win it. But nothing can replace an Olympic medal because of what the country was going through, first of all. And second of all, that team we had, nobody expected us to win. We only had two guys—Bykov and Khomutov—who had won a lot of things, and were like dads to us. There was one more experienced line Prokhorov – Boldin – Borshchevsky from Spartak but the rest was a young team. Nobody really cared, that’s what it felt like. Nobody expected us to win, and we just surprised everybody.