- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2020

ARLINGTON, Va. — There’s a very good chance the Washington Capitals’ trade-deadline acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk pays dividends for their postseason push. But if nothing else, Kovalchuk’s arrival in Washington has sparked nostalgia among the various connections he has with the Capitals.

“It’s great,” Kovalchuk said after stepping off the ice at MedStar Capitals Iceplex for the first time. “A lot of familiar faces, obviously, so I can’t wait to start tonight.”

When news came through Sunday that the Capitals had acquired Kovalchuk from the Montreal Canadiens for a 2020 third-round draft pick, Alex Ovechkin got on the phone with his friend and countryman. But it wasn’t just one-on-one: Ovechkin had gathered Evgeny Kuznetsov and Washington’s other Russians for the call, Kovalchuk said.

“They were excited, I was excited,” Kovalchuk said. “They said I should fly right away and I said, ‘No, no, I need to take my time.’”

Once he did arrive in town, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov had a sushi dinner with him Monday night.

“He’s one of that [type of] player when we grow up, we watch him,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s a big privilege to share the ice with him, especially for players like my generation. We’ve been seeing him play a lot for national team and he always been the type of guy that you’re watching a lot.”

Kovalchuk and Ovechkin came up through Russia’s national program as teenagers, with Kovalchuk about three years older than Ovechkin. They discussed playing together someday “since we were 13 years old,” Kovalchuk said. 

“We played together on the national team, but never for the same team [growing up]. Usually we battle against each other,” Kovalchuk explained. “But it is always nice when you are older to get a chance to play together for sure.”

Their first time as teammates was on Russia’s senior national team in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, and they continued to stay in touch throughout their NHL careers. When Ovechkin and Kovalchuk would hang out during the summer, or even over last Christmas when their families spent time together in Miami, Ovechkin said they’d often discuss teaming up in a lighthearted way.

“Yeah, of course, we joke a little bit, but at that point I don’t know if it’s going to happen or not because, how I said, lots of issues with the salary cap and all the All-Stars,” Ovechkin said Tuesday. “I’m not a GM. I can’t make the decisions. But I’m happy. I’m happy for him and for us as well.”

Ovechkin isn’t the only prominent member of the Capitals with connections to Kovalchuk’s career. Coach Todd Reirden played for the 2001-02 Atlanta Thrashers when Kovalchuk was a rookie — the NHL’s first No. 1 overall pick from Russia.

Perhaps in an effort to butter up his new coach, Kovalchuk said he thought Reirden was a “very underrated” player who had a big shot for someone who was otherwise a stay-at-home defenseman.

But the relationship they forged that year was serious. By helping look after the rookie, in particular teaching him some English, Reirden found himself starting down the path toward what he does today.

“It was a situation I think that was probably one of the first times I realized I was gonna be a coach,” Reirden said.

In their second year of existence, the Thrashers went 23-45-12-2 in spite of Kovalchuk and fellow rookie Dany Heatley having big debut years.

“We got to Thanksgiving time and I didn’t feel like enough time was being spent with those players to help them get ready to play in the NHL,” Reirden recalled. “So I remember Thanksgiving having both of them over to my house and my wife cooking a Thanksgiving meal for them. So that was the first time we really started to connect. Obviously it’s 19 years later now. But that’s when I knew my role and my passion and the rest of my life was gonna be with helping players develop and young people grow and go through different transitions in their life.”

“I think that’s one of the reasons why he is coaching now, because he taught me a lot when I was and 18 year old and it’s crazy,” Kovalchuk said. “Times fly. His wife, she was pregnant with his boy, and now he is 17 years old and I am still hanging around.”

Kovalchuk will be the Capitals’ third-line right wing and play on the second power-play unit when he makes his team debut Tuesday night against the Winnipeg Jets.

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