Back on Feb. 27, 2004, when Ilya Kovalchuk was in his third NHL season one in which he would finish tied for the league lead in goals and was a mere 20 years old, he would miss his only game that season as a healthy scratch in New Jersey.
In a time when he was still trying to prove that he was a player that a team could win with and not just a one-dimensional scorer, Thrashers coach Bob Hartley held Kovalchuk out of the game that night for missing the team bus to the morning skate the mistake of an immature young player.
That night, a mother approached this reporter in Continental Airlines Arenas press box one of the best in the league back then, as it resided in the lower bowl -- asking where Kovalchuk was. She said her son had a poster of Kovalchuk in his room and that the left wing was her sons favorite player.
The story verifies then, as now, that Kovalchuk is worth the price of admission and also that he is a fan favorite wherever he goes, with fans forming enduring connections to his emotional, high-energy style. Its also somewhat ironic with that story in mind that in the Thrashers inability to re-sign Kovalchuk to a new contract in February 2010, they ended up dealing him to New Jersey, where he is now the leading scorer in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and where the 406-goal scorer ended up signing a 15-year contract worth 100 million.
As the Devils take the ice for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday against Los Angeles, many Atlanta fans can only wonder what might have been while part of them pulls for the red-and-black no, not the Georgia Bulldogs of Newark.
Not only was Kovalchuk a fan favorite with the Thrashers, but so were two other fellow Devils, including goalie Johan Hedberg, who twice won the Thrashers Players Player Award. The Philips Arena fans would affectionately shower Hedberg with calls of Moose his nickname when he made a big play in net. Among writers, Hedberg is one of the best liked players in the league and that charm also rubbed off with the fans during his four seasons in Atlanta.
After departing the Thrashers via free agency following the 2009-10 season for New Jersey, he kept his familys offseason home in Atlanta for a season. In 2010-11, Hedberg, for a time, obscured who was the Devils No. 1 goalie, himself or Martin Brodeur, arguably the best of all time. Hedbergs 137 wins ranked second in Thrashers history.
Enforcer Eric Boulton, who married a former UGa. cheerleader and makes his offseason home in metro Atlanta, is the third former Thrasher-turned-Devil. Boulton played six seasons in Atlanta even netting a hat trick with the Thrashers in 2010-11 before moving on to New Jersey this season where he played in 51 games. Boulton, who has yet to play in the postseason for New Jersey, left as the Thrashers all-time leader in penalty minutes with 639.
Some old Thrashers fans have taken to changing their avatars on Twitter to a photo of Kovalchuk like Laura Taylor. Some continue to use Twitter names like Jaron Grade does with KovyArmy, unchanged since the Thrashers sent the face of the franchise northward 28 months ago. As it all unfolds, Game 1 will be played a day before the one-year anniversary of the NHLs press conference that announced the Thrashers were moving to Winnipeg.
Long-time Thrashers season ticket holder Susan Cornutt posted on Twitter in a response to a story about Kovalchuk that, IMO Ilyas been misunderstood, unnoticed or stereotyped by most talking heads in NHL til now; she predicts Devils in 6. On Facebook, Jimmy Parks, whose avatar is an old Thrashers logo, joined the page New Jersey Devils fanatics.
Taylor said that since the Thrashers left, she has not adopted a new favorite team, but she continues to route for her favorite player: Kovalchuk. She said she is fully invested emotionally in his success and thus the Devils success.
People ask me if Im a Devils fan, wrote Taylor of Midtown in an email. No, Im a Thrashers fan without a team. Kovalchuk is my favorite player, so now I cheer for the Devils.
Taylor thinks that the hockey fans who remain in Atlanta will pull for New Jersey for those reasons.
My friends and fellow Thrashers fans are definitely pulling for the Devils because of Kovalchuk, Hedberg and Boulton, she wrote. Moose and Boults in particular were fan favorites in Atlanta and Thrash fans seem genuinely excited for them.
So for the next few weeks, hockey fans in the town dubbed Hotlanta are likely to make a deal with the Devils.