Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk first arrived in the NHL during the 2001-02 season as an 18-year-old. One of his teammates on that expansion Atlanta Thrashers team was journeyman defenseman Todd Reirden, who at the age of 29, was nearing the end his career.
Kovalchuk, who could barely speak any English, became unlikely friends with Reirden that year. The mentorship was one of the reasons why Reirden got into coaching.
The two hockey lifers were reunited on Tuesday after a deadline day deal 19 years later – one as a player and the other as head coach.
Kovalchuck and Reirden spoke about their friendship with reporters after Kovy’s Capitals’ debut at the team’s morning skate.
A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE: While Kovy and Ovi's friendship is well-known, did you know Ilya Kovalchuk and Todd Reirden have a special bond too? It dates back to 2001 with the Thrashers, a journeyman and teen, helping teach each other lessons off the ice @nbcwashington #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/rHfcEj5T9E
— NBC4 Sports (@NBC4Sports) February 25, 2020
“It’s great (to be reunited with him),” Kovalchuk said. “I think that’s the reason why he’s coaching now because he taught me a lot when I was 18-years-old. It’s crazy. Time flies. His wife was pregnant with their boy and now he’s 17-years-old and I’m still hanging around so it’s good.”
Kovalchuk revealed that Reirden also helped mentor rookie Dany Heatley who would go on to score 50 goals twice in his career.
“We spend a lot of time with him and Dany Heatley on the road,” Kovalchuk said. “They teach me some English. I teach him some Russian. I think he knows more than I expect Russian words. It’s nice that he still remembers and obviously for the last few years he would need to with Penguins with Geno and hear with all the Russian guys.”
Reirden agreed with Kovalchuk’s assessment that their shared experiences together revealed something deep in himself.
“It was a situation I think that was probably one of the first times I realized I was going to be a coach,” Reirden said. “How I know my Russian is all from him. He and I started because he was having a tough time with English when he first got over, so we would exchange words. You guys have heard me tell the story for years now about speaking Russian and how I’ve learned it. It was from him, and obviously I’ve gathered other (words) from other Russian players I’ve played with and ones I’ve coached in addition. He was the one that we first started on the word exchange. Obviously, now his English is perfect and my Russian still is not perfect. That was when I realized, I was a sixth, seventh, defenseman on the Atlanta Thrashers and our team wasn’t very good. We got to Thanksgiving and I didn’t feel like enough time was being spent with those players to help them get ready to play in the NHL. So I remember Thanksgiving having both of them over to my house and my wife cooking a Thanksgiving meal for them.
“So that was the first time were ally started to connect,” Reirden added. “Obviously it’s 19 years later now. But that’s when I knew my role and my passion and the rest of my life was going to be with helping players develop and young people grow and go through different transitions in their life.”
As for how good Reirden was as a player, Kovalchuk spoke glowingly, but maybe not realistically.
“He was very underrated I think,” Kovalchuk said smiling. “He got a big shot. He score some goals but I think he was more like stay-at-home defenseman.”
Kovalchuk added, Reirden was “[r]eally good off the ice.”
Headline photo courtesy of NBC Sports Washington/Scott Cunningham
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