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RED FISHER, The Gazette
Published: Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The National Hockey League began its 2006-07 season secure in the knowledge that the game, as we have known it in recent years, is no more. Detroit, winner of three Stanley Cups in the last nine years, can no longer expect to dominate, as it did as recently as last season, finishing No. 1 overall with 124 points. Once-powerful Colorado, division winners in nine of the last 11 seasons, is crumbling. Many of the game's big stars no longer are shining as they once did.

"One thing that hasn't changed," former Canadiens centreman Peter Mahovlich says "is that winning still is the biggest fun part of the game. In my time, we did stupid things, but we loved to win.

"Scoring goals was and is fun, winning is better," added Mahovlich, who's been a pro scout with the

Atlanta Thrashers in recent years. "Just like our guy ... he loves to win and gets a big kick out of scoring goals."

"Our guy" is Ilya Kovalchuk, the first Russian to be drafted No. 1 overall in NHL history. The story is told (it might even be true) that when the Thrashers had the first pick in the 2001 draft, Atlanta general manager Don Waddell and his aides had two names on their list: Kovalchuk, the brash, 18-year-old with a quick temper, and Jason Spezza.

A meeting was arranged with Kovalchuk, who arrived with an interpreter in Atlanta. Waddell, a wise chap, preferred a one-on-one with the player, so when the interpreter excused himself to visit the loo, Waddell invited Kovalchuk to join him at a restaurant where the Thrashers' coaching staff awaited. Waddell didn't wait long with his decision. By the time the Russian meatballs were served, Kovalchuk was his man.

The Thrashers had failed to make the playoffs in the two seasons preceding Kovalchuk's arrival. They still haven't in the four seasons since then, but picking up the tab for that dinner was a decision made in heaven.

Kovalchuk scored 29 goals in 65 games in his rookie season. He added 38 and 41 in his next two seasons and was one of only five players to break the 50-goal barrier last season, with 52.

"Right now, there are 10 or 12 guys who are going to score a lot of goals in this league," Mahov-lich said.

"Goal-scorers tend to score goals," he added with a laugh. "It's what he does best."

Kovalchuk might be the NHL's purest goal-scorer. If not, it won't be long before he is. Nobody shoots harder. Nobody gets it away quicker. Nobody has a better eye for the net, a hunger for it. Few players are in better condition - or as good.

Consider these Kovalchuk numbers setting career highs and Thrashers records en route to finishing No. 8 among NHL point-getters with 98 last season: after scoring only 13 points in his first 11 games, he delivered 85 over the final 67 games, an average of 1.27 points per game. He had at least one point in 55 out of his 78 games. He ranked No. 3 in the league with time spent on the ice for a forward. He led the NHL with 27 goals and 56 points on the power play and was No. 1 on the Thrashers with 28 goals and 54 points on the road.

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