The return of Alexei Kovalev rights a wrong from his departure eight years ago.
OK, I get it. This Alex Kovalev is not the Alexei Kovalev of my memories. This guy even changed his name from the last time he was in Pittsburgh. He is 38 years old today, has a bad knee and his departure from his last three teams has been marked by celebration from their respective fanbases. He has a pilot's license, which is a good thing, because this Alex Kovalev is not riding in on a white horse to single-handedly save the Pittsburgh Penguins' star-crossed 2010-11 season. I understand this perfectly well.
But still, let me have a minute to revel.
Pens GM Ray Shero swung a trade to acquire winger Alex Kovalev for a conditional sixth- or seventh-round draft pick. Kovalev was previously a Penguin from 1998-2003, when he scored over a point per game (347 points in 345 games).
For anyone who followed the Penguins then, today's announcement had to stop you in your tracks and take you back.
Perhaps to 2001, the high point of AK27's first tenure. Mario Lemieux was back from retirement, and dominating the league again. Jaromir Jagr was racing to another scoring title in his final season as a Penguin. A little-known goalie named Johan Hedberg was acquired and became the toast of the town with the Moose painted on his goalie mask. The Penguins featured the "best second line ever" of Martin Straka, Robert Lang and Kovalev, who all enjoyed the finest seasons of their careers, with Kovalev himself scoring 44 goals and 51 assists.
Or maybe hearing the news made you think back to the distinctive white skates, doing a moonwalk on the ice after a big game. Or his big slapshots and deft stick-handling that seemed to defy laws of physics.
After those nostalgic memories passed, what really made me smile was the sense of how full the circle has come, for the Penguins and Kovalev himself.
It was among the darkest of hours of the franchise when the Pens traded Kovalev (and a few side pieces of guys they didn't want to pay anymore) back to the New York Rangers for Rico Fata, Mikael Samuelsson, some more filler and $4 million. At least other rebuilding teams like Washington were adding promising young players and first-round picks. The Penguins, meanwhile, were in survival mode, favoring money to keep them afloat rather than being able to make deals that made sense in the hockey perspective.
That was a wake-up call, especially for fans like myself who grew up loving watching players like Kovalev play, and then learned the harsh economic lessons that really drive professional sports. Gone were idyllic, carefree days of enjoyment, replaced by the grown-up world of bills, responsibility and worries.
In a sense, everything was set right a long time ago. There is a new collective bargaining agreement that helps small market teams to retain their top stars by restricting team spending. Lemieux finally wrestled a deal with Pennsylvania politicians and got the Pens a beautiful state-of-the-art arena. The team was rewarded with a stellar base of draftees like Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby for the lean years they suffered on the ice. They even won a Stanley Cup.
Now though, in the light of Kovalev's re-acquisition, something just feels right. The team with no hope that couldn't afford to keep a guy like Kovalev just brought him back.
So read on elsewhere about whether Kovalev can fit the Penguins system, or if he's just too old, enigmatic, or inconsistent to be of any use. There will surely be any number of articles wondering if this will even make any difference in the course of the Pens season. All I know is, for a few fleeting minutes, it's like I have a little piece of my happy fan childhood back.