It may be the quickest-ever transition from the NHL to an old-timer’s game.
While it’s true Alex Kovalev hasn’t dressed for the Florida Panthers for a couple of weeks, he was drawing a paycheque until Thursday.
On Sunday he will be playing in a charity event at the Bell Centre pitting former Canadiens greats against a group of former all-stars that includes Hall of Famers Ray Bourque and Glenn Anderson.
When Kovalev played for the Habs, who employed him longer than any franchise other than the New York Rangers, the team that drafted him, he was known as a player’s player.
That hasn’t changed.
“He’s going to be playing in that game Sunday? I might have to bring some sticks down to get signed,” said Habs defenceman P.K. Subban, who shared the same ice as Kovalev during training camp but is too young to have played with him.
That’s how it is when you get to be 40.
Kovalev’s linemate on opening night this season, Jonathan Huberdeau, grew up watching the Russian as Hab, and used to practice stickhandling according to the maestro’s DVDs.
When Huberdeau was in town during the opening week of the season, he was asked what his favourite Kovy moment was.
“The glove,” he said.
That would be the time Kovalev got his dangle on behind the net against the Boston Bruins. After leaving Dennis Wideman for dead, he dropped his left glove onto the ice, wheeled around to pick it up, then spun away from Zdeno Chara.
The puck never left his stick.
And that’s what always amazed his peers: those hands, that vision, that speed, the shot.
He would often demonstrate them in practice, and afterward.
A favourite ritual during his last season in Montreal – he was let go as a free agent in the summer of 2009 – was to stickhandle in and out of hulking teammate Georges Laraque’s skates, flipping passes to himself and generally mesmerizing the big man.
Laraque looked approximately like a tipsy bear trying to swat a bee.
Kovalev may be one of the two or three most physically gifted men to ever play the game.
That he won’t be remembered on the short list of all-time greats is what makes people attach all the usual labels (enigmatic, mercurial, inscrutable).
But within the Habs’ room – where, it must be said, he was known for keeping to himself – he’ll be remembered as totally unique.
The man known as “l’Artiste” will doubtless draw rapturous cheers on Sunday (people tend to forget there were small, but passionate protests when he was allowed to walk).
Alex Kovalev will surely do what he always did best: create a sense of anticipation whenever he grabs hold of the puck, a buzz the likes of which has not been felt in these parts since the days of Guy Lafleur.