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Montreal Canadiens Alexei Kovalev listens to instructions during a practice, Tuesday, April 14, 2009 in Brossard, Que. (The Canadian Press)

Montreal Canadiens Alexei Kovalev listens to instructions during a practice, Tuesday, April 14, 2009 in Brossard, Que.

(The Canadian Press)

MacGregor: Kovalev was incredibly gifted, but flawed Add to ...

There was a time when his retirement would have been major news. A time, certainly in Montreal, likely in Pittsburgh, perhaps even in New York, where there would have been tears on both sides.

But Alexei Kovalev’s quiet retirement from hockey this week was little more than a yawn, perhaps a few raised eyebrows: he was still playing?

Yes, sort of, anyway. He put in 14 games with the hapless Florida Panthers and fit right in with a meagre two goals and three assists.

And yet, those five points raised his NHL totals to 1,029 points, on 430 goals and 599 assists over 1,316 games.

A Hall-of-Fame career, many will say. Just a damned moment there, just as many will argue back.

It is a cliché to say Russian players are enigmas, but entirely accurate when the label was affixed to the one they called “Kovie.” He was an incredibly shy, reserved rookie back in 1992 when the New York Rangers elevated him from their farm team and he scored 20 goals in only 65 games. He was a key factor in their 1994 Stanley Cup victory. He had his best scoring year in 2000-2001 with Pittsburgh Penguins when he had 44 goals and 51 assists for 95 points; but perhaps his best year was with Montreal Canadiens in 2007-08 when he scored 84 points, was a sensation at the 2009 all-star game, where he was named MVP.

But in Ottawa he sucked.

He came to the Senators in 2009 on the heels of Dany Heatley demanding a trade. The Senators, perhaps panicking over the loss of their best scorer, gave Kovalev a two-year $10-million contract and in return he gave them only grief and, on his best nights, a half-hearted effort.

A highly sensitive personality that required constant grooming, he got no comfort from then coach Cory Clouston, who had so turned off Heatley and other veteran players before he himself was removed.

When the Senators decided to start all over again from scratch, they shipped Kovalev off to the Penguins for a seventh-round pick. In Pittsburgh he fared no better. Then he left the NHL for a year in the KHL – one goal in 22 games for Moscow Oblast Atlant – before attempting an ill-fated and ill-advised comeback, at 40, with the Panthers.

He could not play, but he sure could practice.

In fact, over the past number of years, Alexei Kovalev became far more exciting to watch at practice than in games. He was older and heavier – some 40 lbs up on what he weighed as a Rangers rookie – and either too slow or too disinterested to shine in games.

But in practice....my God.

When it came to the little games of “keepaway” that many players, particularly the Europeans, like to play at the end of practice, he was without a peer. A wizard who could dangle a puck in a phone booth packed with college students.

He could do tricks that absolutely astonished. To demonstrate his remarkable balance – he had been a star athlete in several sports as a youngster – he could step on a puck and slide down the ice on it as if it were a small rubber raft on a river. Other players tried, and fell spectacularly. Not Kovalev.

He liked to stand at centre ice and lob pucks like football passes toward the goal, trying to land them on the small flat top of the nets. He could do it several times in a row. He could go down on both knees and still do it.

His skills were not just restricted to the hockey rink.

He became a helicopter pilot and liked nothing better than to spin down a runway turning slow loops that would make anyone else dizzy. He liked to take off and then stop, returning the helicopter backward with such precision that it would land on exactly the same spot from which it had taken off.

A gifted “floater,” some might say.

Incredibly gifted…but flawed.

And likely to become a long and fascinating debate over whether he should land in the Hockey Hall of Fame or not.

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Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG


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