On July 11th, Ilya Kovalchuk shocked the hockey world by announcing his retirement from the NHL. By retiring before his 15-year, $100-million dollar contracted ended, the New Jersey Devils forward left a staggering $77 million dollars on the table. The shocking part of the retirement wasn’t the money left behind, however. Rather, it was that Kovalchuk was retiring from the NHL so that he could play in the NHL’s biggest rival: the Kontinental Hockey League, primarily based in Russia.
As soon as his retirement was announced, reports speculated that the 30-year old superstar would return to Russia to play for the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg. As it turns out, SKA St. Petersburg made it pretty easy for Kovalchuk to walk away from $77 million dollars. Rumor has it he’ll make anywhere from $15-20 million per year playing in Russia.
Although his retirement was surprising, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. During the latest NHL lockout, Kovalchuk had played for SKA and threatened to remain in the KHL if the NHL rolled back salaries, as they discussed doing during lockout negotiations. He was making a ton of money at SKA and the KHL wanted Kovalchuk to be the centerpiece of their league, an opportunity he would never have in the NHL. There were some who believed his wife didn’t like living in the U.S. and he clearly wanted to be closer to his family, as he related in a press release.
“This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia. Though I decided to return this past season, Lou [Lamoriello] was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me. The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, and our fans that have been great to me.”
Though it’s unfortunate for the NHL and the Devils to lose such a talented player, it’s not the end of the world for either side. There are still plenty of talented players in the league and the Devils will benefit in the long run from getting his massive contract off their books. The bigger question here is whether Kovalchuk’s departure will set a precedent for future Russian-born players or current Russian NHLers. Might, for example, players like Alex Ovechkin or Alex Semin follow Kovalchuk’s footsteps? Will future NHL-caliber Russian talent choose to remain home and play in the KHL?
The short answer here is no. Kovalchuk’s situation was clearly an unique one; he had a number of different factors pulling him back home. The NHL is still a step above the KHL, both in terms of the quality of play as well as the accommodations the players are given. Because some teams are so spread out distance-wise, travel in the KHL can be grueling, with three-week road trips and nine hours of travel for away games not out of the ordinary. Additionally, while players like Kovalchuk can make a comparable amount of money in the KHL, the average player will make more money in the NHL than the KHL over the course of his career.
Still, Kovalchuk’s return to SKA will have minor ramifications in the hockey world. His decision and the growing strength of the KHL will convince some Russian players to stay home. NHL teams will be even more cautious when drafting players that have KHL ties.
It won’t, however, lead to a mass exodus of Russian-born NHL players any time soon.
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