Iyla Kovalchuk: NHL's Worst Nightmare

By Michael Nyeste
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a scenario NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has night terrors over: one of the league’s brightest stars and most familiar face, Ilya Kovalchuk, spurns his team and the league to go overseas and play in the NHL’s main international competition, Russia’s KHL.

It gets worse. Said superstar becomes the face of the KHL, and quite possibly Team Russia too, and goes on to score the golden goal to win it all in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. You don’t think that doesn’t cause NHL brass to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat? You’d be wrong.

Think about it. What’s the defining moment of the 2010 Winter Olympics? That’s right; it’s Sidney Crosby scoring the game-winning goal to give Team Canada the win over Team USA. The NHL’s golden boy, the one they basically built up to be the savior apparent after the 2005 NHL lockout season, becomes the de facto face of the league and scores the most important goal in the international hockey world’s eyes in the past four years.

It was arguably the league’s best player making the best hockey league in the world look like, well … the best.

Now let’s say the roles switch here. It’s not farfetched to imagine a skilled Team Russia going up against the U.S. or Canada in the gold medal game. What happens if Kovalchuk pots the game-winner in overtime and all of Moscow explodes into gleeful pandemonium? Questions.

The KHL is a league on the rise; there’s no questioning that. Is it even close to competing with the NHL in terms of quality or exposure? Not a chance. Are they even the second-best league in the world? The AHL probably has something to say about that. That doesn’t change the fact that there’s a very powerful man behind the curtain, pulling strings to make sure that the KHL is a league to be respected.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is an incredibly powerful man, and he’s taken a keen interest in making sure the KHL is a success. He twist owners’ arms to make sure they invest in their team and its facilities. He’s also made it quite apparent just how bad he wants this gold medal.

Why? The whole Olympics are essentially his way of showing the world that Russia is again a rising power. A gold medal in the Winter Game’s marquee event gives a little heft to that narrative. It also does something else: it raises the profile of the KHL that he’s invested in so immensely for all the world to see.

Sure, Team Russia wants to win and has far more NHL players on their roster than KHLers. But they do have KHL players lacing up the skates for them, none more important or high-profile as Kovalchuk.

Kovalchuk was hands-down the best player and face of the New Jersey Devils when he spurned his team and his hefty contract. He took his elite skill set and fame to the KHL, raising its profile and surely giving the league, and Putin’s favorite team, St. Petersburg SKA, a real shot in the arm. What does it do if Russia and KHL’s golden boy pulls a Crosby?

It’s not something the league wants to dwell on or respond to, but it may become a reality for them. The casual NHL fan or observer will think to themselves, “a russian superstar, one of the best players in the world scores the goal in the biggest moment of the Games? Why isn’t he in the best league in the world? How good can the NHL really be if it doesn’t own one of the globe’s best stars?”

For the KHL, it would be touted as clear-cut proof of the league’s legitimacy as a top-flight product. This sales pitch would be constantly set against the backdrop of Russia celebrating their most sought-after prize, with pride and patriotism potentially reaching a fevered pitch that it hasn’t experienced in decades. It would make for an alluring, convincing sell to Russians, Europeans and a handful of those in North America.

Sports are defined by key moments. They can cause paradigm shifts in perception and prestige. If a Kovalchuk golden goal comes to fruition, it becomes a pivotal moment forever seared into the world’s collective memory, and a recurring nightmare for Gary Bettman and the NHL.

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