Exclusive: Kovalchuk on the end of NHL contract controversy

Early Saturday morning, the NHL and NHLPA officially made Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) a member of the New Jersey Devils and a $100 million player, 49 days after the winger agreed to re-sign with the team as an unrestricted free agent.

In those 49 days, his original 17-year contact was rejected and then defeated again in an arbitration case; and then served as the catalyst for an amendment of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that both ended the possibility of similar contacts while approving his.

For much of the summer, Kovalchuk's professional hockey future was uncertain and out of his hands. Was it the most unsettling summer of his life?

"Well, it was somewhat interesting to say the least," Kovalchuk told me by phone from Russia on Sunday. "Of course there were some tense moments. But I am happy everything worked out OK."

Here is Ilya Kovalchuk, speaking for the first time about his contract being approved; his previous contract being rejected; his feelings on the NHL challenging the contract; and whether he regrets not staying with the Atlanta Thrashers when they offered $101 million last season.

Q. How worried were you that the deal wouldn't be worked out?

KOVALCHUK: Of course there were worries and fears. But we were hoping all along that the best outcome for us will finally be there. I am thrilled that this is the way it turned out to be.

What was the most difficult moment for you throughout this whole process?

I wouldn't say there has even been a very difficult moment. I understood very well that this was a serious contract we were talking about. I knew that it would take some time to have it worked out. Of course I wish that the whole situation was settled a little bit earlier, but it is what it is. There's nothing we can do about it now.

Did the uncertainty of your contract somehow reflect on your preseason training and preparations?

Not at all, I wouldn't say that. I am doing exactly the same things that I planned. Every year my routine is the same. It's just this year I came to Russia a week late and started getting ready a little bit later as a result. But it's nothing serious. I will just make up this week in September here. I don't think the delay will in any way affect my conditions.

How did you feel when your initial contract was rejected right after you held a press conference in Newark?

What feelings could I have had? I was told that a rejection was a possibility. So, I was actually ready for it. Back then we didn't know for sure that the contract would be approved. And then there was an arbitration hearing. But of course when I was told that the contract had been rejected, it didn't feel good. But at the same time, New Jersey made another offer that ultimately satisfied everyone.

Was the arbitration your first legal hearing in the United States?

It was a first for me, yes. You can't really call it a court hearing though. The hearing took place at a hotel in a separate room. A conference room was assigned for the hearing. There was a big round table in the middle. Our side was sitting on one side of the table, the NHL and their lawyers were on the other side.

There was even a report that Toronto's GM Brian Burke was at the hearing testifying against [you].

He wasn't testifying against me personally. He was testifying against contracts similar to mine. So yes, it's true, it took place.

Anyone else testify against the Players Association?

Only the league's lawyers. Bill Daly was also there. But no one else, really.

Do you feel that maybe the Players Association didn't mount a good enough defense for you?

Not at all. Why? They presented their case entirely; they said everything they had to say. But ultimately it was up to the arbitrator who made a decision. There's nothing criminal in this.

Throughout this summer did you ever get a feeling that you were being pushed out of the NHL?

Well, the whole process did take a very long time. But as I mentioned, it was not a simple contract, but was rather complex. It wasn't a contract you sign in one day. That's why it took a long time to mutually agree on all sticking points. And no, I didn't have a feeling that the league didn't want me. Everyone understood that this is business and there is can be absolutely nothing personal about it.

At the same time your contract was taken hostage, so to speak, and used to amend the existing CBA. As if there was a show trial.

It would be a show trial if I had signed a contract the league wanted me to sign. But it was not the case. I signed a contract that satisfied me and the team first and foremost. I actually think that the result of it all should positively affect any future contract negotiations.

How interested are you now in getting more involved with the Players Association and being a more active participant?

We have a good union and every player can voice their opinion and say anything they want. When the time comes for me to have a say, I certainly will.

It was difficult to imagine, but still at one point more and more people started believing that if the process dragged on any longer you would have to go to the KHL. Did you start thinking about it at any time?

Not really, no. I did think a bit about a situation that would be acceptable to me here [in Russia]. But I am just happy about the final outcome.

Did you at any point regret not accepting Atlanta's $101 million offer?

No. I am a kind of person who never looks back. I only look to the future. There is no point feeling sorry for the past. You have to live for today and look forward to what's ahead of you. I will now play for a team that is always a contender for the Stanley Cup. It's something that I always wanted.

What to Read Next