Kovalchuk Bedevils New Jersey and Me

By now the entire hockey world knows that Ilya Kovalchuk has retired from the NHL leaving behind $77 million dollars and the New Jersey Devils and their fans in a state of disbelief. The following is an attempt to piece this all together.

I remember the day Ilya Kovalchuk was drafted first overall way back in 2001, the first Russian ever to go first, I followed his career back in Russia where he played for my favorite team, Spartak Moscow. Through the years I would watch him dazzle around the ice with a world class shot and numbing speed.

This was before the NHL had Ovechkin or Malkin and watching Kovalchuk felt like the second coming of Pavel Bure. The goals came at an alarming rate and no one has scored more than him (417) since 2001.

Fast forward to 2010 when the Atlanta Thrashers were rumored to be shopping their star prior to the trade deadline. No Devils fan expected a move for one of the premier players in the league. I was no exception to that notion. On February 4, 2010 that all changed. I was working at a pharmacy photo lab at the time and remember receiving a bunch of text messages claiming my favorite player was coming to my favorite team. I shrieked upon reading the news officially.

Thanks to a friend who worked within the New Jersey Devils organization I was able to secure the second Kovalchuk jersey ever made at the Prudential Center in time for his debut against Toronto. From there, I was pretty much on cloud nine, watching a guy I had admired for so long play for my beloved Devils. I even had the chance to meet him in person with each time resulting in my sudden amnesia on how to speak my first language with him.

Then came the contract saga that seemed to last an eternity but in the end the Devils got their franchise player with an absurd contract both in terms of length and money. Two seasons later, the team, led by Kovalchuk, came within two games of winning the Stanley Cup. Everything seemed to be going to plan. That is of course until yesterday.

Out of nowhere came news that the star forward had announced his immediate retirement from the NHL at 30-years-old leaving his mega contract and the franchise who fought tooth and nail to keep him in NJ in his wake.

Citing “family reasons” which, by the way is just a cowards way of saying “all I care about is money”, Kovalchuk announced his return to Russia where he is expected to sign a even more lucrative contract with SKA St.Petersburg, a team that had made their intentions of having him all to themselves since 2010.

Just like that, the player I grew up idolizing was gone in a blink of an eye leaving the hockey world on its head. Surely few believed he would actually stay with the team until his contract expired but no one imagined it would come this soon. Like many, it left me speechless. From defending his acquisition to the Devils, the contract, or his commitment, there is no way I can ever defend such a selfish act in what has to be the biggest middle finger from a player to management in the history of American sports.

Even as I write this a day later, I can feel my blood boil just a little more than usual. I can’t help but think about all the Russian players that came to the NHL to escape a terrible place and sacrificed everything to get here. This debacle makes a mockery of it. Hopefully this is the only time we will ever see a player in his prime suddenly decide he wants more money than he already has, void his contract, and be on his merry way to a league that will never eclipse the NHL in superiority.

This certainly brings the term “The Russian Factor” to a whole new level. Before NHL teams would be cautious of Russians coming to play here fearing they wouldn’t honor an agreement, but now someone has found a way to get what he wants and leave his team with their tail tucked between their legs. Hopefully, the younger Russian players don’t get as greedy as the Devils newest pariah, but at this point it seems the NHL has little to do in terms of standing in the way.

I can’t bring myself to wish Kovalchuk good fortune in his career in the KHL and for the foreseeable future I don’t see this changing. There is no question he will lead Russia in Sochi next year and here’s hoping the NHL doesn’t send over their best to compete against them as hockey’s Cold War rages on.

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