MONTREAL - Alex Kovalev once said he hoped to play hockey until he is 50 years old.
The smooth right-winger winced a little when reminded of it on Tuesday, which suggests he now finds the idea unlikely. But he still doesn't rule it out.
And after picking up three points for the Florida Panthers in his first game back in the NHL on Saturday after a season in Russia, the soon-to-be 40-year-old Kovalev certainly hasn't lost any enthusiasm for the sport.
"I was laughing the other day with my sons and my wife that I'm playing with a kid (Jonathan Huberdeau) who wasn't born when I won the Cup and maybe I'll get a chance to play a couple of games with my sons," said Kovalev.
"Like I said, I love playing this game. I would love to play as long as I can, but if it comes to the point where I can't keep up any more or play at this level, then there's no reason to be out there wasting my time and someone else's time. At this point, I'm still in good shape. I worked hard to be able to come back and I'm happy."
Actually, Huberdeau was a year old when Kovalev won the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994. But the Russian who will be 40 on Feb. 24 had already played a full season in the NHL when Huberdeau was born on June 4, 1993.
Huberdeau, the star forward for the 2011 Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs, grew up in the Montreal area when Kovalev was the darling of the Bell Centre crowd in five seasons with the Canadiens from 2004-09.
Fans dubbed the clever skater and pinpoint shooter the Artist.
"I watched his DVD," said Huberdeau. "He was an idol for me and I'm lucky to be on the same line as him."
There is still a chance that the Panthers, who drafted Huberdeau third overall in 2011, will send the six-foot-one winger back to Saint John after five NHL games so as not to burn a year of eligibility for eventual free agency, but it looks like the 19-year-old is in Florida to stay.
Coach Kevin Dineen has him on the second line with Kovalev and centre Peter Mueller.
Huberdeau scored his first goal in his NHL debut in a season-opening 5-1 victory at home against Carolina, although the club was then beaten 4-0 in Ottawa on Monday night.
"He's pretty good kid," Kovalev said of his linemate. "He's a good playmaker.
"But there's still a long way for him to go to learn to play at this level and be consistent. We had a good first game and (Monday) night we didn't show up. That could be from having it too easy the first game and then moving up to a harder game. But our line was completely off."
Kovalev turned down a two-year offer from Montreal in 2009 to sign a two year, US$10 million deal with the Senators, but was a bust with 32 goals in 131 games in two seasons in Ottawa. He was traded late in the 2010-11 campaign to Pittsburgh. Last season, he jumped to Atlant in the KHL.
On his return to Ottawa, fans booed him, which he said at least "shows they still remember me."
He spoke to the Panthers before last season, but grew impatient waiting for an offer and signed in Russia.
Florida invited him back to camp. After not playing during the lockout, he still showed enough to earn a one year $1.3 million contract.
"I was pretty excited," said Kovalev. "I was able to show I can be on this team and play at this level. And, like I said, I'm thankful to the organization that they gave me a chance."
Now he just needs to hang on to see if his sons, who are eight and 10 years old, make it to the NHL one day.
"It's only eight (years)," he said with a laugh.