The year was 2001, which seems like a blur now to Ilya Kovalchuk. He was only 18, new to the country, a hot-shot Russian hockey player who'd arrived with his skates and not much else. No friends, no introductions and certainly no English.
"Not a word," Kovalchuk says with a laugh.
Although it wasn't like it mattered much, even without any other countrymen on the Atlanta Thrashers. Kovalchuk watched a lot of TV, picked up enough phrases to get by, and when all else failed, he let that nuclear slap shot act as interpreter. It was Kovalchuk's gift to be able to deliver a puck with such force and accuracy – it opened every door, including the one to the National Hockey League.
Today, Kovalchuk is the Devils' equivalent of Alex Rodriguez: talented, internationally famous, impossibly rich by NHL standards after signing a 15-year, $100 million contract in 2010. The enormity of the deal almost killed it, as league officials ruled that it circumvented the salary cap. The Devils refused to be deterred, having decided Kovalchuk was a to-die-for asset. They reworked the numbers to everyone's satisfaction, effectively locking up Kovalchuk until he's 42.
It might've been impossible for him to honor that contract, say, 10 years ago, when the NHL played a slower, more physical game. The constant pounding on the boards could wear out even a hulk like Kovalchuk, who stands 6 feet 2 inches, 230 pounds. But today, with rules that de-emphasize contact, Kovalchuk says "it's not impossible" to still be among the league's elite in 2025. More and more players, in fact, are lasting into their 40s.
Kovalchuk, of course, is too modest to say he's indestructible – certainly not like Gordie Howe, who played until he was nearly 52. Nevertheless, the Russian forward is ready for a good long run with the Devils and has put down roots for his family in Bergen's most northern regions.
"What I like about living here is that it's quiet and beautiful and close enough to New York that I can take my kids any time," Kovalchuk says in a tranquil locker room.
It is a mid-November afternoon at Newark's Prudential Center, not long after the Devils finished a morning skate. Kovalchuk is the last one in the locker room – his teammates have already dispersed. It takes a nudge or two to get him to open up; there's a reticence about him that's unmistakably eastern European. Kovalchuk is polite but cautious, friendly enough but seemingly without the need to be admired. Ask about signing autographs, and that thin smile re-appears. "I'm not crazy about it," he says.
Kovalchuk is missing the very gene that compels A-Rod to date celebrities or make sure his name is bold-faced on Page Six. To the contrary, Kovalchuk got married at 22 to the woman he'd dated for many years in Russia. He and Nikol have three children ranging in age from 6 months to 2-1/2 years old, and once the season is over, the clan heads back to Russia for the summer.
Kovalchuk's children have dual citizenships, but he says, "I don't want them to lose their Russian side." It's why they still speak the mother tongue at home and why Kovy, as he's commonly known, isn't ready to say he's been totally Americanized, even after a decade here.
Still, Kovalchuk confesses he was wrapped in the tentacles of North American hockey as early as 1994, watching the Stanley Cup finals for the first time as an 11-year-old. Until then, Kovy's father, a basketball star who'd played for the Soviet national team, had tried to steer his son toward hoops. He soon realized the kid's destiny was on the ice. It was like the younger Kovalchuk morphed into a Terminator as soon as he put on the skates – he moved faster than his teammates, shot the puck harder, had a sense of where to be on the ice that was beyond his years.
Hockey was written into Kovy's genetic coding, which explained why he couldn't tear himself away from the championship series between the Rangers and Canucks. It was fellow Russian Pavel Bure, whose play nearly brought Vancouver the Cup, who shaped a young boy's future.
"From that point on, I said, 'that's what I want to do.' Playing in the NHL became my dream," Kovalchuk says, even though leaving home would mean navigating around two major obstacles: learning a new language and coping with America's wariness of what was then the Soviet Union.
In the aftermath of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the toppling of the Berlin Wall, Kovalchuk knew "it wasn't a good time ." Yet the migration of eastern Europeans into the NHL was already changing the league's demographics. In the five-year span from 1991 through 1995, the number of Russian players in the NHL increased dramatically, from barely 1 percent to more than 7, producing legends like Igor Larionov, Sergei Federov and Slava Fetisov.
By 2001, it was Kovalchuk's turn, as the Thrashers picked him in the first round of the amateur draft. Kovalchuk was as highly regarded a rookie as Eric Lindros was in 1991 – big and fast, tough enough to intimidate anyone on the boards. Kovalchuk's on-ice demeanor had acquired an edge as he got bigger and stronger in his teens. He was aggressive, if not violent at times, which, combined with his slap shot, made it close to impossible for opposing teams to defend him.
He shot 29 goals in the very first year in the league, and that was just a tease of what was coming. By mid-decade, Kovalchuk had run off a streak of five straight 40-goal seasons. By 2009, he'd already reached 300 for his career.
This was the life Kovalchuk had dreamed of – success on hockey's biggest stage. Goaltender Martin Brodeur says, " brings a different element from other players. There aren't many guys in the league who are able to shoot it like that. For his size and ability, he's a guy we never really saw here in New Jersey."
Even the transition from those awkward early years was easy. After mastering English, Kovalchuk realized the gulf that separated the two nations wasn't so wide after all.
"I realized there's no difference between New York and Moscow – the lifestyle is the same, people are crazy on both sides," Kovalchuk says with a laugh. "What's great about this country is how different the regions are. You can get on a plane and in two hours you're in Miami, which is so different than New York, which is so different from California. It's amazing to me."
Kovalchuk's friends from Russia now come to visit during the season – travel between the two countries is more relaxed, more politically acceptable. It's a great vacation for the posse, plus everyone gets to see why Kovalchuk plans to keep playing into his 40s.
"It's going to take a little luck to get there," Kovy says, although it's clear he's doing just fine in that department.
Kovalchuk's Workout Routine
Ilya "Kovy" Kovalchuk stresses the importance of maintaining optimum body condition during the hockey season and in the summer months of the off-season. "With the speed of today's game, you really have to prepare yourself," he says. "In the past, players didn't work as hard to stay in shape but it's very important to do so to remain competitive."
Kovy believes that it is imperative that he have some physical activity every day to contribute to his overall strength and conditioning during the off-season. He works with a personal trainer, the same trainer for the past eight years, who focuses primarily on running sprints and jumping. The approach includes "old-school Russian-type" workouts that take three to three and a half hours a day to complete. Kovy completes the regimen every day – even when it's raining. The workouts are repetitive jumps and sprints to help build speed – a must for a forward in the NHL. In addition, he plays tennis in the summer months, again building endurance and agility.
During the hockey season, Kovy says the training camps provide sufficient workouts, but he also does 20 minutes a day on the bike. He'll complete 15 20-to-30-second sprints on the bike with a minute break. He complements that with pushups. Even when sidelined for an injury earlier this season, Kovy's doctors allowed him to continue with the bike to maintain his strength.
Of course, diet also plays a role in Kovy's overall fitness. "I make sure that I eat properly to be sure that I maintain my proper weight," he says.