Ilya Kovalchuk will play in China for KHL expansion team: Report

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 16: Ilya Kovalchuk #71 of Russia celebrates after scoring the winning goal in a shoot against Jan Laco #50 of Slovakia during the Men's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group A game on day nine of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 16, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 9 - Russia v Slovakia

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 16: Ilya Kovalchuk #71 of Russia celebrates after scoring the winning goal in a shoot against Jan Laco #50 of Slovakia during the Men's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group A game on day nine of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 16, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

When Ilya Kovalchuk was scratched a few times by SKA in the Kontinental Hockey League playoffs, speculation ran wild that he would return to the National Hockey League, to the point where deputy commissioner Bill Daly was answering questions about how the mechanics of such a return would work. 

Instead, it appears Kovalchuk isn’t heading back to the NHL. In fact, he may end up someplace the NHL has never been: China.

According to Gabrielle T-F, a correspondent in Moscow for Agence France-Presse, “sources tell Russia media that Ilya Kovalchuk is leaving SKA St Petersburg to join the KHL's expansion team in China next season.”

That report was from two “informed sources” speaking to Gazeta.ru, who said that Kovalchuk, 32, will leave SKA and play for Red Star Kunlun.

And hold onto your hats, ladies and gents: It appears MONEY MIGHT BE A FACTOR for Ilya Kovalchuk.

Shocking, we know.

Gazeta reports that the “fall in the ruble” may have led to Kovalchuk playing in China, as money is “one of the main, if not the main, incentive for an athlete whose professional career is short.” The salary for the team, based in Beijing, “will be on average two times higher than in Russia” for KHL players. And the local tax system in China is also more beneficial, which is incredible when you consider how friendly it’s been to North American players choosing the KHL.

One other factor to consider: Mike Keenan.

Iron Mike is rumored as a potential candidate to coach this new team in China, and would bring with him a North American style of hockey. And yes, it speaks volumes about Kovalchuk’s relationship with SKA coach Sergei Zubov that he would seek the warm embrace of Mike Keenan.

This is pretty significant news if it happens. Kovalchuk is a marquee name, a star to market around for a new team planting its roots in rather fertile soil, as Roman Rotenberg, the KHL deputy chairman who recruited Kovalchuk away from the NHL, told Foreign Policy in December:

The KHL is expanding into an untapped but potentially lucrative hockey market in China, where the league essentially will be forced to start from scratch. Rotenberg said talks are underway for a second KHL team in China, but stressed a grassroots approach.

“A second team playing in the Chinese league, a team in the youth league, and mass involvement so that all who wish can play ice hockey” is required to sustain the growth of the game in the nascent hockey market, Rotenberg said.

As noted in that article, the KHL is also hoping the Chinese government gets behind their expansion efforts, seeing as how they need to grow some hockey fans in preparation for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

So it appears there will be no Ilya Kovalchuk with the New Jersey Devils next season, nor will the New Jersey Devils have a chance to trade his rights upon his NHL return. 

But there’s a lot we don’t know about this Kovalchuk deal. Like the potential money. Like the potential term. Like, for example, how much a hockey jersey made in China for a team in China will cost, and will it fall apart the first time you wash it?

UPDATE: SKA denies the news, Tweeting (translated), "Recent reports of possible changes in the SKA have nothing to do with reality."

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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