NEWARK, N.J. – Putting to bed all the speculation that he could possibly stay in Russia this season, Devils’ star Ilya Kovalchuk arrived for his first day of training camp with the team Wednesday.
The 29-year-old winger, who played in his native Russia during the lockout and missed the first day of camp to play in the Kontinental Hockey League’s All-Star Game Sunday, explained his decision after playing in the Devils’ intra-squad scrimmage.
Kovalchuk said he wanted to participate in the game for the Russian fans, who had already bought tickets expecting to see him play, and asked Devils GM Lou Lamoriello’s permission first.
“I’m happy I’m back,” said Kovalchuk, who led the Devils in scoring last season with 37 goals and 46 assists. “I got some family reasons [why] I stayed, and I decided to play in the All-Star game there. I asked Lou and we just had a good talk. Everybody understands each other.”
In the interim period between the NHL and NHLPA brokering a new collective bargaining agreement and that agreement’s official ratification, reports out of Russia indicated that several of the country’s stars such as Kovalchuk, Alexander Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk might prefer and/or attempt to stay in the KHL.
The KHL and NHL have a Memorandum of Agreement that no player with an NHL contract can play in the KHL once the lockout is lifted.
“No, I don’t know where you read all those comments, but I have a contract here and in KHL they have a rule that as soon as the lockout ends, we have to go back,” Kovalchuk said. “Nobody had a choice.”
Kovalchuk laughed when denying one report, that even Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to convince him to stay.
“No, that’s not true,” Kovalchuk said. “I’m sure he’s got some other stuff to take care of.”
Lamoriello said he was never worried that Kovalchuk, whose 15-year, $100 million contract is signed through 2024-25, would stay.
“No, I never had any reason to believe he wouldn’t be back,” Lamoriello said.
Kovalchuk said he loved playing at home and enjoyed spending time with family in his native country – he got to celebrate the Russian New Year for the first time in seven years – but is glad to return now that the lockout has ended.
And given his time spent during the lockout – he racked up 18 goals and 24 assists in 36 games for St. Petersburg SKA – he feels he will have a slight edge with such a shortened training camp before the season opens this Saturday.
“I think there will be a little advantage for the guys that were playing,” said Kovalchuk, who flew into New Jersey on Tuesday night. “But it’s going to take a couple days with the time difference and then I’ll just feel normal, like I always do.”
Luckily for Kovalchuk, he managed to slink back into camp without any mention of his time missed or, more importantly, his impromptu figure-skating stunt that he was forced to perform during the All-Star game.
“That’s for later in the season,” coach Pete DeBoer said with a chuckle. “I’m sure that clip will come out.”