On Saturday morning when the United States Men’s Olympic hockey team steps onto the ice to battle the hosts, Russia, there will be a great amount of tension and pride at stake. For the fans of two certain former teammates back at home this game will mean much more. Russia has a lethal amount of top snipers but one by far stands out above the rest for NHL fans and especially New Jersey Devils faithful. The ex-$100 million man. The man that will cost his ex-team a top draft pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. The man that left it all behind to go back home. The man by the name of Ilya Kovalchuk.
But is Kovalchuk actually the hero in this battle of international superpowers? Despite the trouble the Devils went through to re-sign him in the summer of 2010 and despite leaving behind his 15-year contract, is Kovalchuk actually the lesser of two evils in this battle at Sochi? Is the true villain in this match-up the captain of the United States, Zach Parise? Is Parise, the man who captained the Devils to the Stanley Cup Final two years ago and then bolted the team that drafted him in the first round in 2003, the real enemy? Do the colors on Parise’s sweater mean more to Devils fans than their anger over his signing with the Minnesota Wild or are they more sympathetic to the “retired” player that abruptly left a hole in the middle of the Devils 2013-14 lineup?
Adversaries Turned Teammates
Before they became teammates with the Devils they battled each other in the Eastern Conference for four and a half seasons. In the NHL, Parise and Kovalchuk faced off against each other nineteen times since Parise entered the league in 2005. Kovalchuk and his Atlanta Thrashers won ten of those meetings while Parise and the Devils took the remaining nine. Parise was held off the score sheet in seven of those match-ups compared to Kovalchuk being blanked six times . Each player scored eleven goals in their head-to-head battles but Kovalchuk won the points battle by having eight assists, one more than Parise. Then on February 4th, 2010, in a blockbuster trade Kovalchuk was shipped to the Devils with Anssi Salmela for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier, and the Devils first-round pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Both teams also traded their second round picks in the deal.
The two players would enjoy mixed success as teammates with the Devils from that point forward. Kovalchuk never eclipsed the 40-goal plateau with New Jersey but in 222 games scored 89 goals for a total of 201 points. In 28 playoff games he scored 10 goals and 25 points. Parise scored 13 goals and 12 assists as a teammate of Kovalchuk’s during the remainder of the 2009-10 season and put up 31 goals and 69 points during the 2011-12 year. It was during this season that career-long left winger Kovalchuk was forced to the right wing to accommodate Parise, a center turned left-winger. Together they sandwiched center Travis Zajac on the Devils top unit. The Devils marched all the way to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final with Kovalchuk and Parise playing a leading role. Parise scored eight goals for 15 points but Kovalchuk, despite a herniated disc in his back, put up eight goals with 19 total points.
Ilya Kovalchuk finishes against the New York Rangers during Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Final:
Parise and Kovalchuk Go Home
Then it all went sour for the fans of Jersey’s Team. Parise turned down a “competitive” offer from the Devils to return home to Minnesota with his friend and former Nashville Predator, Ryan Suter. One of the Devils most irreplaceable players was gone in a flash which paved the way for the new leader, Kovalchuk, to take command. The 2012-13 NHL lockout wiped away the first and only scheduled head-to-head meeting between Parise and Kovalchuk with the latter wearing the red, white, and black on November 11th, 2012. Then when the league resumed play each team’s schedule included only intra-conference games which negated any meeting in the truncated schedule. Kovalchuk, with a heavy heart, returned to the Devils after playing in the KHL All-Star Game in Russia. At the conclusion of the season, Kovalchuk “retired” from the NHL only to sign with SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL a short while after.
Both players essentially left to go home. Devils fans loved the star power of Kovalchuk but absolutely adored Parise. His leaving ripped apart the heart of the Devils team and their loyal following. While Kovalchuk left a tremendous void on the score sheet that hasn’t been refilled, Parise’s exodus is the one that hurts the most and digs the deepest. His scoring touch was only a compliment to his leadership and work ethic. He could play in all three zones and would grind in the corners and the front of the net. He was the prototypical New Jersey Devil. Kovalchuk, for all he brought to the lineup, was never looked at the same as Parise. He changed positions and battled through a painful injury to help the Devils to the Final. He sacrificed the celebrity stature he would have received in Los Angeles when he rejected their contract proposal in the summer of 2010. He chose to remain a Devil. Yet, Parise was always the hero. Now, for the first time since June 11th, 2012, Parise and Kovalchuk will share the same ice surface once again in a painful reminder for Devils fans of a time period that ended way too soon.
Previous Olympic Experience
On the international stage at the Olympics, these two have never gone head-to-head. This will also be Parise’s first encounter against the Russians in Olympic play. In the 2010 Olympics, Parise had four goals and four assists in six games as the Americans, captained by then Devils teammate Jamie Langenbrunner, won the silver medal. On the other hand, Kovalchuk has faced the United States three times at the Olympics. He was held scoreless in his last game against the Americans when the Russians defeated the United States 5-4 at the 2006 Winter Olympics at Turin, Italy. In their 2002 Preliminary Round match-up Kovalchuk, an NHL rookie that season, and the Russians tied the United States 2-2 but were eliminated in the semifinals by the Americans when they lost 3-2 on February 22nd, 2002 (The 22nd anniversary of the Miracle on Ice). Kovalchuk scored a goal and added two assists during the 2002 Olympics en route to the bronze medal. Overall in 18 Olympic Games entering this year’s edition at Sochi, Kovalchuk has scored six goals and added five assists.
Zach Parise scores one of the biggest goals in USA hockey history when he ties the Gold Medal Game against Canada during the 2010 Winter Olympics:
Is the United States Captain the Hero or the Villain?
Parise and Kovalchuk have performed admirably when they faced each other in the NHL and also came within two wins of a Stanley Cup title as teammates. While Parise has had more success on the international stage at the Olympics, Kovalchuk’s experience and burning desire to win the gold medal on home ice will make Saturday’s meeting a very passionate battle. Back at home, fans of the New Jersey Devils will be tuning in to watch a game that has a lot more than just national pride at stake. Does the pain Devils fans felt when Parise departed New Jersey outweigh the betrayal of Kovalchuk? On the contrary, did Kovalchuk, the new hero when Parise left, hurt the Devils more when he flew off to his native country? Some will cheer for the colors of their home country despite their long lost captain and the heart of their team leaving town. Others may very well be cheering against their own country in favor of the man that abandoned their team (and their league) but somehow remains the lesser of two evils. United States vs. Russia. Zach Parise vs. Ilya Kovalchuk. Which side are you on?
Leo is in his second year with THW. He covers the 3-Time Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils and the Albany Devils of the American Hockey League. You can follow Leo on Twitter, @LeoScaglioneJr.