Johnston: Will Russians follow Kovalchuk to KHL?

Ilya Kovalchuk is expected to rejoin KHL team SKA St. Petersburg in the coming days.(AP/Julio Cortez)

We’ve been told for years that a day like this was coming.

Ever since the Kontinental Hockey League came into existence in 2008 and promptly brought Alexander Radulov and Jaromir Jagr over to Russia, the spectre of a rival league that could lure top-level talent away from the NHL hung over the hockey world.

Finally, the KHL has its poster boy.

That Ilya Kovalchuk is headed home in the prime of his career just months before the Olympic Games are held in Sochi, Russia is probably not a coincidence. The financial incentive for someone in his skates has never been greater; neither has the pressure from those with power and influence.

And even though there probably won’t be a flood of players chasing immediately behind him, one industry source with strong ties in Europe wondered aloud Thursday: “The big question is who is joining him?”

For now, that remains to be seen.

Let us first digest a decision by Kovalchuk that left many who follow the NHL stunned. It’s worth remembering that the talented winger nearly didn’t return to the New Jersey Devils when the lockout ended in January.

By then, he had spent a few months as captain of SKA St. Petersburg — the KHL’s most powerful team, which is bankrolled by Gazprom and overseen by league president Alexander Medvedev — and been reacquainted with life in his homeland.

That is the life Kovalchuk will now return to on a full-time basis at age 30.

It probably won’t ever be the same. Not only is the talented winger about to be treated as a conquering hero, he is widely expected to wear the captain’s “C” for Russia at the Olympics.

As if that isn’t enough, history will remember him as the first star player of this generation to shun the NHL and return to a country where hockey is every bit as popular as it is in Canada.

“This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia,” Kovalchuk explained in a statement. “Though I decided to return this past season, (Devils GM) Lou (Lamoriello) was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me.”

The decision wasn’t reached in a vacuum.

Those who follow international hockey closely can’t help but notice what has been happening with the KHL recently. Yes, the league has garnered more than its share of bad press — the tragedy of the 2011 Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash won’t soon be forgotten, nor should it — but the rate of growth has also continued at an aggressive pace.

Just last month, it was announced that the historic Finnish club Jokerit would join the KHL in 2014 after prominent businessman Gennady Timchenko purchased Hartwall Arena where the team plays. For what it’s worth, Timchenko’s net worth is estimated at $14 billion.

You see, the KHL will soon be known as a wealthy European league rather than just a Russian one. Kovalchuk won’t be the last player to go home and the key figures in the international game know it. They’ll even admit it privately.

However, a specific set of circumstances needed to be in place for the NHL’s former No. 1 draft pick to leave North America now.

Most notably, the Devils didn’t stand in his way. The team could simply have tolled a contract that had 12 years and $77 million left on it, but instead Lamoriello signed Kovalchuk’s voluntary retired list papers which essentially left that pact null and void.

As a result, there will be no legal hurdles for the player to leap before re-signing with SKA St. Petersburg. He is expected to do so immediately.

Truth be told, the cash-strapped Devils were probably happy to be out from under the weight of Kovalchuk’s deal. However, Lamoriello was cagey when questioned about the timeline on which events unfolded or how he felt about the winger bolting from his team.

“I am looking forward,” said Lamoriello. “I’m not thinking of anything that’s just transpired. I’m not going to allow anything get in the way of what I have to do as far as distracting myself.”

The entire Kovalchuk affair will amount to a forgettable period in Devils history. Not only did the franchise surrender picks and prospects to acquire him from Atlanta, it may also have lost Zach Parise in free agency last summer because of the cap space taken up by the Russian’s contract.

The Kovalchuk deal will also force New Jersey to surrender its first-round draft pick next year because it was ruled to have circumvented the salary cap — a potentially damaging decision with the Devils in danger of struggling in his absence.

It is quite a mess to leave behind.

That said, Kovalchuk lived up to his billing as a dynamic offensive player who was drafted first overall by the Thrashers in 2001. He moved to the U.S. as an 18-year-old and wound up amassing 417 goals and 816 points in 816 regular-season games.

Because his teams were so rarely part of the playoffs, Kovalchuk was a regular participant in the IIHF World Hockey Championship. Having covered many of those tournaments, I can say with confidence that he played some of his most inspired hockey while wearing a Russian sweater.

No doubt his career highlight to date is scoring both the tying goal and overtime winner in the gold-medal final against Canada in Quebec City back in 2008.

Kovalchuk never forgot where he came from and he will be a hero to a number of young Russian players that won’t even consider a career in North America because of the KHL. Just look at how few of them are now being drafted and developed by NHL teams.

On the off-chance Kovalchuk ever wants to return to the NHL in the future, league bylaws dictate that all 30 teams would have to approve his application first. It appears unlikely that he’ll ever ask them to determine his fate.

“This wasn’t a decision by the New Jersey Devils,” Lamoriello said emphatically. “He will not be playing here at his desire.”

Indeed, Kovalchuk is blazing a new path for accomplished Russian hockey players. Don’t be surprised if any of his countrymen choose to follow.

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