Johnston: KHL appeal increasing for Russians

Ilya Kovalchuck, centre, bolted from the NHL to the KHL, while Sergei Bobrovsky, right, decided to sign a new NHL deal despite strongly considering playing in Russia and Alex Ovechkin, left, has spoken fondly of the KHL. (AP)

Sergei Bobrovsky spent the NHL lockout playing alongside Ilya Kovalchuk with SKA St. Petersburg and seriously considered following him home to Russia this summer.

Even after a breakthrough campaign that saw him win the Vezina Trophy, the Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender called it a “very tough decision” to return to North America for another season.

It’s not that the 24-year-old was unhappy with the Blue Jackets or the generous $11.25-million, two-year deal they ended up giving him. Far from it. However, he couldn’t deny feeling the same tug as other Russian players when he looked at available options in the ever-expanding KHL.

“It was a very tough decision,” Bobrovsky told during a recent interview. “The decision that I made was what I think was right for my career moving forward.

“I just focus on myself, on my career, what will be the best way to grow up and to develop myself.”

The answer to those questions might never have been less clear cut than it is now for top Russian players. Living closer to friends and family is appealing; as is the big money that can be earned on home soil, where taxes tend to be lower and escrow isn’t part of the deduction from every paycheque.

Kovalchuk had $77 million left on his contract with the New Jersey Devils when he chose to walk away from the NHL in July. The 30-year-old even signed retirement papers that could make it nearly impossible to return since league bylaws dictate that every team would have to grant its approval.

News of his decision to bolt for the KHL hit the hockey world like a shockwave — even Bobrovsky, a former teammate who had pondered a similar move, was caught off guard.

“To be honest, yeah (I was surprised),” he said. “But St. Petersburg, it’s a great place to play hockey. It is one of the best, (most) beautiful cities in the world I think. The people are so nice and they do for hockey everything.

“So it’s a surprise and it’s not a surprise.”

The more it happens the less surprising it will be — and the numbers have been on the decline for some time.

Fifty-one Russian players appeared in the NHL during the 1997-98 season and just 28 played last year. With Kovalchuk and Alexander Burmistrov now gone to the KHL and Ilya Bryzgalov still looking for a contract, the number might even dip slightly lower in 2013-14.

All of this comes amid speculation that Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin might eventually eye a permanent move back to Dynamo Moscow, where general director Andrey Safronov has indicated a willingness to try and working something out with the three-time Hart Trophy winner.

Ovechkin has $79 million on the remaining eight years of his current deal with the Caps but admits that it’s nice to be courted by another team that he still holds in high regard.

“The answer is, like, I’m here, I have a contract,” Ovechkin told reporters in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday. “It was very enjoyable to hear president of Dynamo and GM wants me to sign, and be honest with you, I love Dynamo, it’s my first team and I play (there) when it was lockout. But I have a contract.

“So I have to play here and I respect my teammates, I respect my fans, and all that kind of stuff. That’s about it.”

During the NHL’s player media tour in New York last week, Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin both said they weren’t sure if Kovalchuk’s departure was the start of a trend for their countrymen.

“You never know,” Ovechkin said.

This will be Bobrovsky’s fourth NHL season and he admits to feeling much more comfortable with life in America than he once did. Off the ice, he struggled mightily after joining the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010-11 — in large part because his then-girlfriend (now-wife) Olga was unable to get a U.S. visa and had to live in Ottawa for a chunk of the season.

Bobrovsky also had to deal with the same kind of culture shock most people go through in a new country.

“That was a really hard time … it was just crazy,” Bobrovsky said. “It’s not (just) about language, you know? People are different.

“Different life, different everything, different rules, different law — it’s a different world.”

One thing the goaltender is already looking forward to is the mid-season trip home he’ll likely get to make for the Sochi Olympics in February. He is also strongly in favour of seeing KHL and NHL teams face one another as part of the proposed Champions Cup tournament that could begin as soon as 2016.

Eventually, Bobrovsky believes the KHL could grow to the point where it can legitimately challenge the NHL both on and off the ice.

“They’ve got everything to do that, but we’ll see,” he said.

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