After plenty of speculation about where he would play hockey in 2017-18, Ilya Kovalchuk put the rumours to rest by signing a one-year deal to remain with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL earlier this month.
Returning to the NHL would have meant foregoing the chance to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games—something Kovalchuk was not willing to do, according to an interview on his team’s website.
“One of the main factors was the upcoming Olympic Games,” he said in translation, via SKA.rus. “In 2018, only players who play in European championships and the KHL can compete there.”
The NHL released a statement earlier this year stating that its players would not be heading to PyeongChang next February.
Kovalchuk has represented Russia on the Olympic stage four times, registering nine goals and five assists in 23 games and medaling once (bronze, 2002).
“It’s an Olympic year, so everyone who wants to represent their country has to play at their best,” said the 34-year-old Russian winger. “I am not an exception, and it’s a challenge which I accept.”
This will be Kovalchuk’s fifth full season with SKA (not including 2012-13, when he played in Russia during the NHL lockout), the only KHL team for which he’s skated. He has tallied 89 goals and 222 points in 209 games since leaving the NHL, including an impressive 32 goals and 78 points in 60 games in 2016-17, and has won the Gagarin Cup twice (2014-15, 2016-17).
“It was important to stay with SKA, because I have only played here in the KHL,” he said. “I have a lot of warmth for the club and our fans.”
A potential return to the NHL wasn’t as easy as picking a team and signing. Because the New Jersey Devils still hold his rights, he would have had to either sign with the Devils or agree to a sign-and-trade.
Kovalchuk could have another big decision on his hands a year from now, as he’ll officially be an unrestricted free agent per the NHL CBA’s 35-plus rule.