On Thursday, July 11th, the New Jersey Devils released more shocking news into the hockey world. Ilya Kovalchuk decided to retire from the NHL to play in Russia.
Before discussing this further, I need to share a little background about my relationship with Kovalchuk. Covering the New Jersey Devils, Kovalchuk made me privy to certain information not available to the general media. These are items that I chose to either print, not print, or wait to print.
Back in 2010, shortly after Kovalchuk was traded to the Devils, I interviewed him for a special player interview on the Olympics, right before the Olympic break. I asked him about the Olympics and what Russian nationalism meant to him. The way he described his pride to play for his country, it was like most Russians I speak to about playing in the Olympics. As compared to the Czechs, the Americans or even the Canadians, playing for the national team was more important than anything else.
That’s why Kovalchuk headed to the World Championships every year to play for his country. It’s why he serves as one of the ambassadors for the Sochi Olympics.
At the end of the season, with the Devils knocked out of playoff contention, I waited until all of the reporters were finished interviewing him. He saw me waiting patiently to talk to him as a Russian reporter approached, trying to interview him. He turned to the reporter and told him he had to wait. I went up to him and asked the most important question: “Are you planning on re-signing with the Devils?”
It was right then and there that he told me he would. He also told me how he would play out Free Agency. He would go into free agency and listen to other team offers, but he would ultimately sign with the Devils (that is, if the Devils wanted him).
The important thing here is that he remembered he told me after that last game of the season. He waited for me to print it. I never printed it. His agent contacted me that June and said that Kovalchuk had told me what he was doing in free agency. Why hadn’t I printed it yet?
I needed guarantees that Kovalchuk would not do what other players are known to do… they say one thing and circumstances change so they decide to go with another team. I needed a guarantee that Kovalchuk was not lying to me. I would not print it unless I had the guarantee and promise that he would not lie to me. It was my reputation at stake, not Kovalchuk’s.
Jay Grossman’s response to me was, “If he told you he was signing with the Devils, that is what he’s going to do.”
It was through this talk with Mr. Grossman that I grew to understand who Kovalchuk was. Prior to that, he was a complete stranger to me. I learned about his character, the things that were important to him, how he thinks, and what he believes. I knew who Kovalchuk was at a level that most reporters do not get to experience. Kovalchuk allowed that door to be opened so that I could better explain him to everyone else out there. He trusted me enough to let me see him as he truly was.
Over his time with the Devils, that Russian nationalism and the Olympics were brought up. When the NHL said they weren’t sure if they would go to Sochi, I asked Kovalchuk about it. What would he do?
Simply put, his response was that he didn’t care. He would go anyway… no matter what it cost him.
As of today’s date, the NHL has not announced their decision of whether they will allow players to go to the 2014 Winter Olympics. There are a multitude of reasons why.
A few years ago, when it was brought to my attention why the NHL was sitting on making a complete decision on this, a story came across my desk from Russia. It was about the corruption in Sochi and how so much money was being stolen from the Olympic budget. The Economist just released a story to be published in their print edition on July 13th that details that corruption. You can read it here.
Just recently, President Vladimir Putin moved to Sochi to oversee the Olympic project. The original $12B budget has now escalated to $50B of public funds all going to contractors that are ‘friends of Putin.’
Based on The Economist’s report, there are environmental and human rights violations in the building of the Sochi Olympics. The article states, “[I]n Russia corruption is not a side-effect: it is a product almost as important as the sporting event itself.” [This would explain why KHL President Alexander Medvedev has so little respect for the NHL contracts in place. They don’t care about honorable agreements.]
The buildings being built in Sochi are shoddy and poorly constructed. They have seven months to complete the Sochi Olympics…and they’re nowhere close to completing it on time thanks to their horrible work and the constant funneling of money away from the actual construction costs.
This is one of the many reasons why the NHL is waiting to make a decision. If you saw these reports (and these reports have been in Russia for a couple of years now), wouldn’t you think twice before sending your players there?
As for the Russian national team, they sent out an article that conflicts with the NHL schedule and making sure the current Russian NHL players on the Olympic team get their practice time in. The news reports constantly discuss how the Russian ice hockey team has to win the gold medal in their country. They take every single World Championship loss/win very seriously.
That is the biggest point here. The Russians are very serious about winning gold. The KHL is “[doing] everything possible to help the Russian national team succeed at the Sochi 2014 Olympics.”
The KHL is even taking their break two weeks before a NHL break could possibly happen (currently NHL’s predicted timetable would allow Olympians only three days to get to Sochi). They want to make sure the Russians have a slight edge over the rest of the world, so they need their team to meet earlier.
As of now, the NHL has not agreed to the Olympics due to player insurance, travel and video rights.
Another player I was told some time ago that would defect no matter what the NHL decides is Alexander Ovechkin.
According to RIA Novosti, “Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, who was chosen to be one of the torch bearers for the Sochi games, has vowed that he will play for the Russian national team in the Olympics no matter what the NHL decides.”
Kovalchuk said something very similar as well when the controversy arose over the NHL possibly not allowing its players to go to the Olympics.
Slava Malamud of Sport-Express told RIA Novosti, “Not playing for the national team in Sochi is simply “not an option” for Russian stars in the NHL.”
This is something that is being echoed by many Russian NHL players on the national team. The question is, now that one player has defected how many more will follow suit?
Ovechkin has Ted Leonsis’s permission to head to the Olympics. He doesn’t necessarily have to defect to Russia. But what about Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk? Will they opt for retirement to head to the KHL to prepare for the Olympics?
According to Craig Custance, the reason why there were no problems with Kovalchuk leaving was due to the fact the Devils didn’t fight it, so the NHL didn’t fight it. But if someone like Malkin decided to defect, the Penguins would fight it.
There are the other, simpler, elements as to why Kovalchuk made the decision to defect that echoes his personality: 1) he’s a family man, and 2) he’s a nationalist that loves his country.
Medvedev said towards the end of the lockout that he would steal Kovalchuk from the Devils. He would find a way to get Kovalchuk out of his contract. According to Petr Prucha (former New York Ranger and Phoenix Coyote), who was playing for SKA St. Petersburg while Kovalchuk was there during the lockout, he reported to the Czech publication iSport.cz that it did not surprise him that Kovalchuk did what he did.
He said that Kovalchuk wanted to stay last winter, but due to the contract with New Jersey, he decided to come back. He mentioned to iSport.cz that Kovalchuk was working quietly with Medvedev and their legal team to figure out how to get out of his contract so that he could remain in Russia.
Kovalchuk is rumored to make $20 million with SKA St. Petersburg next season [announcement is due out on Monday]. This is 2x what he was scheduled to make with New Jersey. He would also be able to be with his family in Russia, something he was missing in New Jersey. This is not twisting his arm at all. What solidified the deal to move back home was the lockout.
If the lockout had never happened, Kovalchuk would still be a New Jersey Devil. He threatened that if he would end up making less money, he would stay in the KHL. With taxes, escrow and all, he would stand to make more money playing in the KHL even if they matched his NHL contract. With an overall tax rate of only 13% in Russia versus the taxes he pays in the US (somewhere in the neighborhood of 45%), once again, this is not twisting his arm. Staying in the NHL…that was twisting his arm.
Being back home in Russia, being the biggest hockey star Russia has ever seen, these are all things that factored into the demise that Kovalchuk would leave the NHL. Prucha commented that he had never seen the likes of Kovalchuk’s popularity before in Russia. Everywhere they went, he heard Kovalchuk’s name. The roar from the crowds when they said his name was something he had never witnessed before…and he’s played alongside Jaromir Jagr when he was a New York Ranger.
For Kovalchuk, Russia was offering him something better than what the NHL could offer to him…fame, money, his family by his side, and a chance to become a true legend for his country. In the NHL, they would never be able to grant him all of those things.
Did Kovalchuk see this day coming? Yes, he did. Did I see this day coming? All I can say is that he warned me that it could be a possibility. In the beginning, this was more about the Olympics, but it grew into something more. The lockout was what solidified it. If you want to blame anything…blame the lockout. Medvedev would have never been able to fully sink his claws into Kovalchuk if there had been no lockout.
Medvedev had plenty of time to whisper that sweet poison Kovalchuk needed to hear into his ear to make him see that Mother Russia was the golden age, not the NHL. He was determined to have Kovalchuk in Russia and he knew how to play every single card that was important to Kovalchuk in order to break one of his most important attributes that made me respect him: Being True To His Word.
For me, there’s that part betrayal where I received guarantees he would not lie to me. Fact is, he never did. He was always truthful about everything. He prepared me over these years that this could happen. The only groups he lied to were the Devils and their fans. He broke his word that he was a Devil for life. He broke his bond with them. He lied when he said he would end his hockey career with the Devils…that was why he signed a long-term contract.
In essence, to the Devils, he was not true to his word, and that makes him less of the good man I believed he was. He broke one of the most important things about him that I needed a guarantee on. He only gave the guarantee to me that he would not lie to me. That guarantee did not extend to the Devils.
There are positives and negatives to this whole situation. The positive is that it frees up some much needed cap space the Devils were lacking. It gives the Devils more freedom to build a better team with the loss of David Clarkson and Zach Parise (both players also wanted to return to their own hometowns).
There are the ramifications that Custance mentions in his column for ESPN. GMs have mentioned that the draft could be affected. They’ll be less likely to pick a Russian in the first round thanks to Kovalchuk’s decision.
Some GMs are pondering if this could possibly happen to their own teams. Will more players want to return home and try to have their contracts voided? That remains to be seen, but the fear of that uncertainty is there.
In the end, I owe a lot to Kovalchuk. He gave me the most coveted information in the entire NHL when he first came to the Devils. He gave that information to no one else because he wanted me to be the one who printed it. Why me? I’ll never know. But the way he describes me to others, there are things that are never said in that locker room and I pick up on it. I’m right all the way down to the very last detail…and that’s what freaks them out. They’re afraid of what I’ll pick up on every time I’m in that locker room. That’s why it’s always wise to be upfront and honest from the start. That was the relationship between reporter and hockey player we established from the very beginning.
He didn’t have to answer me that day that he was signing with the Devils and how he would do it. He could have said “No comment.” Instead, he chose to tell me. He waited for me to print it and then he had to have his agent nudge me to print it. After that, we were on the same page of understanding.
It’s with that (even with mixed feelings of betrayal and wanting to wish him well because of that loyalty), that I say…good luck to Ilya in his new adventures in life. May it bring him great peace and happiness. I just pray he made the right decision for everyone in the end…no matter what sacrifices were made along the way. I wish him success.
For the Devils fans… In Lou We Trust.