It’s always nice being able to wake up early in the morning and watch Olympic competition. It’s one of the beauties of the games. At any given time, there is some event going on. And at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, the puck dropped on Team USA’s first game, a 7-1 thrashing over Slovakia.

However, watching the game, it was easy to tell that the seats were not exactly all filled. As USA played their game at Shayba Arena, the team representing the host country battled Slovenia next door at a packed Bolshoy Ice Dome. The majority of the fans went over to see the home team play.

At 17:48 in the second period of the Russia-Slovenia game, Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk scored a powerplay goal. The Russian faithful went berserk for “Kovy.” Even on TV, it sounded deafening. Hearing those Russians and seeing Kovalchuk score that goal made it clear why the 30-year-old forward left the National Hockey League and began life anew in Russia.

The Kontinental Hockey League (formerly the Russian Superleague) is Russia’s premier hockey league. While the arenas don’t come close to the size of NHL arenas, it’s still wildly popular over there. The idea of leaving the NHL to go play in front of their fellow countrymen is a tempting one to big-name Russians, like Kovalchuk.

It’s not as though he had a bad deal over here in North America. Kovy tore up the junior hockey scene in Russia, and his efforts got him drafted number-one overall in the 2001 by the Atlanta Thrashers. After eight seasons with the now-defunct Thrashers, Kovy signed as a free agent with the New Jersey Devils. He agreed to a contract so large (17 years, $102 million, per ESPN New York) that the NHL actually rejected it, and he had to settle on 15 years, $100 million. Poor him.

Mark Humphrey / AP Photo: Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk goes backhand to get passed Slovakia goalie Jan Laco to win a shoot out for the Russian national team on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014.

Mark Humphrey / AP Photo:
Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk goes backhand to get passed Slovakia goalie Jan Laco to win a shoot out for the Russian national team on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014.

He signed that mammoth contract in 2010. Where is he now in that deal? You’ll find him in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Just three years after being locked up for life with New Jersey, the alternate captain of the Devils decided enough is enough with the NHL.

He announced his retirement on July 11, 2013. Per CBS Sports, on July 15th, Kovy signed with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL for four years. Converted from Rubles, he’ll earn roughly $15 million per season out there. Not shortly after his arrival, they made him captain.

Why leave the world’s biggest hockey stage? Inevitably, the KHL garners a handful of NHL players. The guys that go over are typically draft busts and guys who just couldn’t find their way in the NHL. But in the case of Kovy, the man just wanted to be home.

During the two lockouts in the past ten years, Russia became a top spot for NHL players to play while the owners and the players association bickered. Kovy spent the duration of 2012-13 lockout with SKA St. Petersburg and returned to the Devils once the conflict was resolved.

Kovalchuk told The New York Times that his stint in the KHL during the lockout prompted his return to Russia.

“This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia,” Kovalchuk told the NY Times, “Though I decided to return [to New Jersey] this past season, Lou [Lamoriello] (New Jersey Devils’ General Manager) was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me.”

So what we have here is a guy who just wants to be with his family and play hockey. Not unreasonable. And according to, he’s playing well, too. He’s number nine in scoring across the KHL with 40 points through 44 games this season.

What impact does this have on other Russians in the NHL?

Whether it had been in the KHL or the Russian junior ranks, the 32 Russians currently in the NHL have all had a taste of hockey in front of their families in Russia.

Kovalchuk’s departure signals the first time a player of that magnitude decided life in Russia trumps life in the NHL. What if Moscow-native Alex Ovechkin, who leads the NHL in goals, decides that he wants to take his talents back home?

The temptation is there. Sure, your NHL team takes a bit of a financial penalty if you decide to leave in the middle of your contract, and you’ll really tick off your fanbase. But what’s stopping these guys from leaving?

The onus must shift to the NHL and Commissioner Gary Bettman to ensure that the league’s Russian stars stay put.

Of course, they’re free to play where they please, but these players bring a level of excitement to games that put fans in seats. If fiscal growth is something that NHL values, they must make sure that Kovy’s case is an isolated incident, rather than the new norm.


Ray Waldron can be contacted at

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