Avalanche news: Eager To Learn, Nikolai Kovalenko Is Taking His Crash Course With The Avalanche In Stride 2024

To say the last few weeks have been a whirlwind for Colorado Avalanche forward Nikolai Kovalenko might be an understatement.

One night, he was helping the Colorado Eagles keep their season alive, scoring the opening goal in a game they needed to win (and eventually did). The next day, he got word from the Avalanche that he might be needed for Game Four the following afternoon, and to be ready. Hours before his debut, he drove down from Loveland, playing his first NHL game in the middle of a playoff series without so much as a practice with his team.

Just a few days later, he dressed in the elimination game where the Avalanche closed out their series with the Jets. After his first morning skate with the team, he turned to Mikko Rantanen, who his stall was placed next to, and remarked at how much media was in the locker room. I imagine a playoff game in Canada is slightly different than a game over in the KHL.

All of this in just a 96 hour timespan. That’s a lot to take in for someone thrust into a pretty tough situation, but Kovalenko has had the right attitude through it all. He’s here to learn, even if there’s a lot being thrown his way in a short period of time.

“In the first game, I was so nervous, but I think that’s okay,” Kovalenko told me after practice on Friday, his first full practice as a member of the Avalanche. “Second game, I felt very good. I felt like I have a hockey game in the NHL, so I felt not nervous.”

For someone who is still learning English, he was remarkably chatty with me, and has not turned down an interview with anyone since coming up to the NHL. That could have been the easy thing to do until he felt really comfortable in the country, but it probably says a lot about him and what type of person he is. He’s taking it all in stride and doing what he can do get more comfortable.

At practice, he’s been spending a lot of time talking with the coaches after drills, especially Avalanche assistant Toby Petersen. Yakov Trenin and Valeri Nichushkin had to direct him on what to do during his first morning skate in Winnipeg. I saw him joking about his stick with Jack Johnson, and then chatting it up with Captain Gabriel Landeskog on the bench. On Saturday, he went bar down on a 2-on-1 to score, and Zach Parise gave him a big tap on the pads and then talked to him along the boards.

Invaluable experience for someone so new to the team and to the country, but I can imagine it’s a lot to take in.

The English part of it all is especially difficult for someone coming from another country, but he’s learning all the time.

“I have a teacher every day (for English). Every day, we just practice,” Kovalenko said. “For me, it’s a great time. When people speak correct and use small words, it’s great for me. I watch every day, TV on the English speakers, I try to understand everybody. Sometimes on the ice or in the game, I don’t know what guys say, it’s just so quick, so small (words) I got.”

On the ice, it is a little different. Kovalenko noted that while the ice is slightly bigger in Russia, the biggest difference is the size and speed of everyone in the NHL. After his first game, he joked about how he was trying to hit people, but they weren’t falling down. System wise, the biggest adjustment comes in the defensive zone. He got caught on the Jets third goal in Game Five, and didn’t take another shift that game until the final face-off, when the game was already over. That’s all part of the learning experience.

“D-zone, it’s different. It’s man-to-man that is played, but in KHL, they play zone,” he said.

The NHL was going to be an adjustment no matter what for Kovalenko, especially jumping in at this time of year. It does help a little that he had a decent tutor over in Russia.

Igor Larionov, better known as “The Professor” to hockey fans everyone, was Kovalenko’s coach the last two seasons at Nizhny Novgorod in the KHL. Larionov played almost 1,000 games in the NHL, won three Stanley Cup’s, and is a member of the Hockey Hall Of Fame. He helped the 24 year old forward a little bit, as everyone in the KHL knew he was headed to the Avalanche once their season ended.

“We talk a little bit about the NHL,” Kovalenko said. “About how they train, game, the mental side. We talked about this, and he just helped me with that.”

I don’t know about you, but if I found out my Head Coach was going to be one of the more renowned names in hockey in my country, I’d be a little nervous. Kovalenko said he found out after transferring from AK Bars, a move that changed the trajectory of his career. Everything came together in Torpedo, and a lot of that had to do with the coach and how he likes to play.

“When I heard the first time that he will be the head coach, it was a shock for me,” he said. “I was so happy. It doesn’t matter, whether you play regular season or playoffs, you have the same hockey. It’s really tick-tack hockey. This is what we call it in Russia. Ticky-tacky, ticky-tacky, quick pass, pass, pass. And it’s really cool. We just played and enjoyed every game, every training. We were so friendly team, and we were so together. It was a great moment for me. All those guys stay for me like family.”

Right now, is taking it all in and looking for all the help he can get from his new teammates and coaches. He seems especially mesmerized by Nathan MacKinnon, who has been the best player in the world this year. How could you not be?

“It’s an unbelievable time for me in the NHL. It’s like dreams come true,” Kovalenko told me. “I’m just playing with MacK and lots of guys who are just crazy good and it’s cool hockey. It doesn’t matter what time I have, just work and help for our team. I just really want the help, just working on my feet, my passes. I’ll do what the coaches say.”

At this point, I had already taken up a lot of Kovalenko’s time, as we had chatted for about 10 minutes. But I did have to ask about one last thing…

I assumed the story behind it would be simple. He was heading to the Avalanche to play with MacKinnon, and his teammates played a joke on him.

Turns out, it’s a little bit deeper than that, and has to do a lot with his work ethic and what he demands of everyone.

“In the KHL, in Nizhny Novgorod, all guys just know that I can just swear, I can just be demanding with everyone,” Kovalenko said. “I can say, ‘what the **** you doing? Let’s go, more, more, more! Let’s keep working. Why the heck do you just stand? Why do you slow your speed?’ You know? I can say it like MacK there. I remember, we had one session with sports psychologist, and he just asked who the most aggressive guy is, and everyone say ‘Yeah, Kovy.’ But in second season, I was more calm, more friendly, maybe just try to say, ‘hey, good job! Keep trying!’ That was my first season, and everyone remember that. Now, we’re just laughing about these stories. They say, ‘Hey, when you go the NHL, will you be talking with MacK just like that?’ Obviously, no! They called me MacKinnon of Nizhny Novgorod. It was playoffs, they like changed my last name to MacKinnon, and they just don’t correct it!”

Okay, that’s a better story than what I had in my head. Kovalenko is a worker, and demands a lot from himself and his teammates. His head might be spinning right now, but that’s normal. A lot has been thrown his way in the last week, but he’s taking it all in stride.

The experience is invaluable, and that experience could very easily pay off for the Avalanche in the future.

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