Kovalchuk’s retirement from the National Hockey League has surprised some fans, even sending a select few into apoplectic fits, but this was something the former New Jersey Devils forward had been looking at for a long time.
It dates back to the lockout, at least. When most players were returning to the NHL from wherever they went during that period, Kovalchuk stayed in the KHL to play in that league’s All-Star Game. SKA St. Petersburg – the team he was playing for during the lockout – was working to try to keep him in Russia. They flashed considerable money at him.
But Kovalchuk honoured his NHL contract instead and returned to North America to play for the Devils. He told his KHL suitors that he was work to find a solution that would honour the wishes of all parties involved, taking him to SKA St. Petersburgh (where he really wanted to play) and away from the Devils (where he was rarely comfortable).
It is believed that Kovalchuk made his feelings known to Devils management early, but he still showed up to play in 2012-2013 and he still pulled 31 points in 37 games in the lockout-shortened year.
“I give Kovy credit,” Devils captain Bryce Salvador said. “This is something he’s obviously been dealing with for a while. It’s not like he just woke up and thought, ‘I want to retire.’ I think with him making the decision so early in the summer it shows that he was thinking about the team and it definitely gives Lou ample time before the season starts to make some decisions knowing well in advance Kovy is not going to be here.”
It’s tempting to feel bad for the Devils, who lose a heck of a player, but they’ve also relieved themselves of a player who wasn’t overly comfortable in the sweater. And losing the responsibility of that massive contract doesn’t hurt either.
Kovalchuk’s deal has also generated a lot of talk about the KHL swooping in and stealing NHLers from where they “rightfully belong.” The first aspect of this is that players are free to play wherever they want so long as things are done above board.
The second aspect of this is that the KHL’s big pockets, so to speak, haven’t exactly materialized yet. In fact, when opportunity knocked in the form of the NHL lockout, most KHL teams stuck to the sidelines and kept spending to a minimum.
So while headlines are various outlets are suggesting otherwise, there’s really no good reason to think that Kovalchuk’s move to SKA St. Petersburg will inspire a lot of copycatting. Sure, the KHL may boast the likes of Alexander Radulov, Brandon Bochenski, Dmitri Kalinin, Branko Radivojevič, and Alexander Frolov, but they’ve struggled to land the really big names until now.
While it’s possible the KHL could prove alluring to some, most of the world’s big stars still hold the NHL in high esteem and many of its Europhobic fans always will. Of course, it could prove strangely beneficial to Gary Bettman’s league to hear some footsteps over its shoulder.