Ilya Kovalchuk shocked the hockey world when the 30-year-old winger announced in early July that he was walking away from the $77 million left on his 15-year contract with the New Jersey Devils to return to Russia and play in the Kontinental Hockey League. He then signed a four-year deal with SKA St. Petersburg.
But will other Russian-born players follow Kovalchuk to the Motherland or is Kovy’s (reverse?) defection an isolated incident?
I would argue that more NHL players could very well follow Kovalchuk to the KHL for various reasons.
First, is the rise of the KHL and its ability to compete in financial terms with the big contracts of the NHL. Because of the tax system in Russia and the big-money oligarchs and even Russian premier Vladimir Putin backing the league, the KHL has the ability to offer its players the same financial incentives provided by the NHL.
But the big draw is being closer to family and friends. As Kovalchuk said in an interview with SovSport.ru, “I’m not going to the moon, China or Japan. I’m going home, where my mother, sister, my friends live. I’m more comfortable in Russia. I am happy. I wanted it myself.”
Also, remember that Russia is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi and it is easier if Team Russia players are already in the country with a KHL club.
So will Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Sergei Gonchar or Alexei Kovalev walk away from their multi-million dollar contracts and return to Russia? Don’t be surprised if there is another defection to Moscow, St. Petersburg or another KHL city in the rising power to the east.