After announcing his retirement from the NHL last week at the ripe age of 30, Ilya Kovalchuk has spoken out about his decision and his subsequent move to sign with SKA St. Petersburg, the team he played for during the lockout.
The move shocked fans when it was first announced, with everyone wondering “why?” After all, Kovalchuk had signed a hefty mega-deal to play for the New Jersey Devils just a couple years previously, had gone to the Stanley Cup Finals with the team, and then gave it all up to move back to the mother land.
“I’m not going to the moon, China or Japan. I’m going home, where my mother, sister, my friends live. I’m more comfortable in Russia,” Kovalchuk said. “I am happy. I wanted it myself.”
Certainly the money that the KHL was offering wasn’t a factor, either. Kovalchuk signed a four-year deal with SKA earlier this week for a reported $15 million per season, which will see him get nearly what the Devils owed him from his 15-year, $77 million contract in just four short years.
The Devils were aware that Kovalchuk had a desire to return to Russia to play in the KHL, but they didn’t expect an announcement to come this quickly. In two years, the team has lost two of its biggest stars, with a third, Martin Brodeur, on the verge of retiring any season now. But the team is committed to moving on despite the loss of their star player.
“Of course, [I was] disappointed,” said Devils coach Peter DeBoers. “When something comes at you like that out of left field, it’s obviously not something you even consider from where I stand. When it does hit you, it’s obviously disappointing. You catch your breath for a day, and you get ready to move forward.”
The retirement of Kovalchuk, and subsequent cap space it has created, has sparked rumors that the Devils could go after free agent forward Jaromir Jagr, or possibly Damien Brunner, who played for the Detroit Red Wings last season. The team could also weather the storm and wait until next summer to retool, when players like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Paul Statsny, Marian Gaborik, Thomas Vanek and Phil Kessel are all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.
As for Kovalchuk, talk has already began to spread about if or when he might return to the NHL. He could return in 2018, at the age of 35, as a free agent without approval from the Devils or any other team.
“I am not going to Russia to start thinking about coming back to the NHL,” Kovalchuk said. “I’m happy I played in the best league in the world for so long. Unfortunately, I didn’t win the Cup. But I have no regrets.”