Montreal Canadiens right wing Alex Kovalev (27), from Russia, is defended by Atlanta Thrashers\' Garnet Exelby. (CPimages/AP, John Amis)
The Montreal Canadiens right-winger insists he didn't criticize coach Guy Carbonneau or his teammates in an interview with a Moscow radio station two weeks ago. An alleged transcript of the interview, in which he says Carbonneau doesn't like Russian players, appeared later in the Russian weekly magazine Football-Hockey.
And on Monday, it was translated into French in Montreal La Presse, which devoted nearly its entire sports section to the controversial statements that Kovalev denies ever making. It's main headline was: Good Information Despite Kovalev's Denial.
The rival Le Journal de Montreal backed Kovalev, saying he was the victim of an internet hoax.
It drew a crush of cameras, microphones and notebooks to the Bell Centre, where Kovalev pleaded not guilty.
"There's nothing to explain," Kovalev said. "Everybody knows I won't say those things. I'm not that type of person.
"They know that if I want to say something about my teammates or anyone in the organization I would go to that person and say it."
Carbonneau accepted that explanation after meeting with his veteran winger, who is known for speaking his mind.
"I had a good conversation with him," said Carbonneau. "I can read people pretty good and if he lied, he's a good liar, but I believe him."
The magazine quotes Kovalev as saying Carbonneau doesn't like Russians and that francophone players receive preferential treatment; that the coach doesn't talk to his players; and that the team's accent on defence stifles creative players like himself and Sergei Samsonov.
It also says that because francophone players stick together the club is split into cliques; and that young players like Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre have swollen egos because they have the support of the fans.
The wiseguys in the media noted that whether he said those things or not, it's not all off-base about the slumping Canadiens, who are in a 4-10-0 rut that has dropped them out of playoff position.
Kovalev said he spoke to the radio station for two or three minutes for his 33rd birthday on Feb. 24, but didn't discuss most of what appeared in the magazine.
"The only thing was she asked me about my performance and I said that when you play defensive hockey, you have to give up certain things from your game," he said. "But this is a team sport. You have to stick to the team plan."
How fans will react is uncertain. The Canadiens play at Atlanta on Thursday and in St. Louis on Saturday and do not play at home until March 13 against the New York Islanders.
Kovalev, one of the club's highest-paid players at $US4.5 million per season and probably the most talented on the team, is having a terrible year.
He has only 13 goals and 27 assists in 61 games after a season of 23 goals and 42 assists in 69 games 2005-06.
He was benched for most of the third period of a 5-3 loss to Ottawa on Feb. 10 and then took himself out of the lineup for seven games to heal a sore elbow.
He returned on Feb. 26, the day the magazine interview appeared. It has been much talked of in internet chat rooms since then.
Kovalev said he is not a "stupid person" who is unaware that what is said in the Russian media will find its way back to North America.
"I don't have a problem with the coach," he said. "There's things you want to see the coach do better, but the coach is the coach.
"He sets up the game plan and we have to make it happen. I never had any problem with the coaches."
And he said he has no problem with the Canadiens, who signed him to a $13.5-million, three-year contract as a free agent in 2005.
"I can compare it with the Rangers - I think this organization treats players twice better than even they are treated in New York," he said.
His teammates appeared to accept his explanations.
"I've known Alex two years and that's not his style," said defenceman Mathieu Dandenault.
And the rookie Latendresse denied the team was divided.
"On the road, we all go out to eat together and we all talk," he said. "When I heard about this, I was surprised."
Kovalev complained he has frequently been misunderstood and misrepresented in the media. He said it was unfair that he is often portrayed as selfish and that one magazine listed him among the NHL's hardest-to-coach players.
He said it may eventually drive him out of Montreal.
"If you (media) are going to keep embarrassing me here, there's no reason for me to stay because I don't want to ruin my reputation and ruin my career," he said. "Sometimes you wonder why anyone would want to be a good player when things like that happen.
"Maybe you should just stay a low-profile player and not worry about anything else. But I want to be the best player."