Ilya Kovalchuk took his talents — a rare blend of skill, speed and strength — home to Russia last summer.
It doesn’t sound as if Kovalchuk has any regrets about his abrupt retirement from the NHL.
The 30-year-old Kovalchuk likes life in Russia, where he can spend more time with his family while playing for SKA St. Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League.
“I’m really enjoying everything here,” Kovalchuk said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press after playing in Saturday’s KHL All-Star game. “It’s a great league. The game is different, but we are getting there. There are good players here for sure.”
In any league, the six-foot-two, 230-pound forward is one of the best. He hits, he’s fast and he can handle the puck. Oh, he can score.
The New Jersey Devils know that now more than ever.
In the 10 years before he left, Kovalchuk had an NHL-high 388 goals and 765 points, trailing just Joe Thornton and Martin St. Louis, while with Atlanta and New Jersey. At the age of 20 with the Thrashers in his third year in the league, he scored a league-high 41 goals and at least matched that total in each of the next five seasons.
Yet the three-time All-Star walked away from $77 million and the 15-year contract he signed in 2010. The scrambling Devils signed 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr to fill in for their superstar. After talks with Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello, Kovalchuk was at peace with giving up guaranteed annual salaries of at least $11 million this season and in each of the next three seasons.
“I talked to Lou for sure and it wasn’t just one day,” Kovalchuk recalled. “I appreciate the way he handled the situation and I’m excited it worked out for both sides.”
Lamoriello was testy when he discussed the news with reporters in July, saying “this wasn’t a decision made by the New Jersey Devils.”
Well, it has worked out for Kovalchuk. He is happy and has 36 points in 38 games for one of the KHL’s best teams, a squad he played for during last year’s lockout.
The Devils, meanwhile, are tied for 10th in the Eastern Conference standings. Just three NHL teams have scored fewer goals than the Kovalchuk-less team.
“There’s only so many great players in this game, and he is a great player, so we had to change things and we’re still going through changes,” New Jersey forward Steve Bernier said. “You don’t lose a player of that calibre without going through an adjustment. We have to work that much harder to score goals and win games.”
Despite having high-scoring players such as Kovalchuk, Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk at the 2010 Winter Olympics, the Russians didn’t even make it to the medal round. Canada humiliated Russia 7-3 in the quarter-final in a matchup of traditional powers that left Kovalchuk and Co. without a medal for the second straight games.
“It’s old history,” Kovalchuk said when asked went wrong four years ago. “I’m looking forward to playing Canada in Sochi. If it’s going to happen, it will be exciting.”
Kovalchuk might be excited even earlier than that marquee matchup because he is a candidate to be Russia’s flag bearer during the opening ceremonies.
“Nobody has talked to me about it — yet,” Kovalchuk said. “It would be a big honour. Whoever they pick is going to feel real good about carrying the flag.”
Kovalchuk has represented Russia at three Olympics, including the bronze medal-winning team in 2002, nine world championships, one world junior championship and the 2004 World Cup.
On the other side of the world, he’s still keeping an eye on the Devils and other NHL teams.
“I follow everybody,” he said. “I watch when I’m on the bus or somewhere waiting.”