Why Ilya Kovalchuk didn’t disrespect NJ Devils in leaving for KHL

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The announcement last Thursday made by the New Jersey Devils that Ilya Kovalchuk had retired from the NHL sent shockwaves through the hockey world. The news came as a big surprise to most.

But not all.

Those close to Ilya Kovalchuk were not as surprised as the rest of us. Albeit, as one source told me, they didn’t expect this to happen for another two years or so.

As the initial shock is settling, we come to realize that the reasons behind Kovalchuk’s decision are as complex as can be. It has always been difficult to get into his head. However, it appears that the only thing that is certain that Kovalchuk was contemplating leaving the NHL for some time. The decision to leave was not a “spur of the moment” thing; it was not something that was brewing for weeks.

It's something that he was considering for a long time.

The NHL lockout ended in January and most players returned to North America from the leagues they were playing in during the lockout. Kovalchuk initially stayed behind to participate in the KHL All Star game. At the time SKA St. Petersburg, the club Kovalchuk was playing for, had an idea that he wanted to stay. They tried hard to keep him, thinking he would just quit the NHL, like some others did.

But Kovalchuk was different. Talk about honor, Mr. Cherry: It is even feasible to say that SKA and the KHL were surprised and found a new level of respect for Kovalchuk, when he told them he would not just quit, but would honor his contract with the New Jersey Devils and would try to find a solution that would take everyone’s opinion into consideration. If that solution would indeed become available.

Kovalchuk’s feelings were known to the New Jersey Devils’ management for a while, as Kovalchuk himself explained in his retirement statement. Last January, the awareness of Kovalchuk’s feelings was only emphasized. It’s not that he was unhappy with the Devils. But something was wrong. Something was amiss. Something just didn’t feel right for Ilya. But he got on the plane and came back to the NHL.

He led all forwards in the NHL in time on ice in the regular season. In the 11 games that the Devils played last season without Kovalchuk in the line-up, the team only one once. He was second in points to only Patrik Elias on the team, having played 11 fewer games.

“Obviously he was very well-liked in the dressing room. People wanted to have him around,” Bryce Salvador said of Kovalchuk. “We’re going to miss him on and off the ice…”

"I give Kovy credit," Salvador went on to say. "This is something he’s obviously been dealing with for a while. It’s not like he just woke up and thought,’ I want to retire.’ I think with him making the decision so early in the summer it shows that he was thinking about the team and it definitely gives Lou ample time before the season starts to make some decisions knowing well in advance Kovy is not going to be here. I think that’s encouraging because Kovy could’ve easily waited until Sept. 20 to say he’s not coming back. Then the organization would’ve been in a tough situation at that point. It was respectful for Kovy to make that decision now.”

After the season was over Kovalchuk went on to play for Team Russia at the IIHF World Championships. When it was over he knew what he wanted to do. And last week his wish was granted. He asked to hold off on the announcement until he was able to talk to his family and inform them of the development. Once that was done the New Jersey Devils announced his retirement.

He was looking for a civilized end, as his mother put it, to the relationship. He wanted to ensure that everything is done right and there was mutual understanding. No one but a chosen few knew of the developments. And that ensured no leaks to the media.

It is possible that not even SKA and the KHL knew what was going on because everything is leaked to the media in Russia. And Kovalchuk achieved that.

Emotions may run high in some who throw stones and blame Kovalchuk for stealing from the Devils or being dishonorable. However, looking at how everything was handled by both sides, cooler minds will admit that there was nothing disrespectful.

Kovalchuk will go home and play in Russia. He will almost certainly captain the National Team in Sochi. He will do what’s best for himself and his family. It is his decision. And it should be respected, especially in light of how he handled his departure, from making his feelings known months ahead of the eventual departure.

And when the time is right – almost certainly when he is 35 – he may still come back to the NHL.