There are, of course, multiple precedents for players leaving the NHL in the prime of their careers so they could play at home.
Hakan Loob was 28 when he retired from the Calgary Flames in 1989 – on the night they won the Stanley Cup – so he could raise his family in Sweden. Alexei Morozov left the Pittsburgh Penguins at 27, and went to play in Russia's Superleague during the NHL lockout of 2004-05. The thought was Morozov would eventually return to the NHL – but nine seasons later, all with Ak Bars Kazan – he never did.
For some players, it doesn't matter how much money they can make in the NHL. The lure of playing at home trumps all.
That was the primary motivation behind Ilya Kovalchuk's surprise decision to leave the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, officially "retiring" from the NHL so he could return to Russia.
There was no mention of his future plans, but the expectation is the 30-year-old winger will sign with SKA St. Petersburg in the Russia-based KHL as soon as the necessary paperwork is complete.
There was even some talk during the NHL player lockout last fall that Kovalchuk might stay and finish the year with SKA, which would have breached his NHL contract. Kovalchuk played 36 games for St. Petersburg, scored 48 points and arguably had the greatest impact of all the high-end Russians that returned to play during the labour unrest.
Instead, Kovalchuk left with the Devils' blessing and with $77-million (U.S.) remaining on his contract, after playing just the first three seasons of a 15-year, $100-million deal he signed in July of 2010.
That year, the NHL rejected his original free-agent contract, on the grounds it circumvented the salary cap. Eventually, the Devils and Kovalchuk restructured the deal so it met NHL standards, but the league imposed a heavy penalty on the New Jersey organization anyway – a $3-million fine, plus the loss of a third-round pick in 2011, and a first-rounder in any year between 2011 and 2014.
The Devils didn't surrender the pick last year (29th overall) and they didn't surrender it this year (No. 9, trading it instead to the Vancouver Canucks for goaltender Cory Schneider), when the event was held at their home Prudential Center. So New Jersey, a team that could easily be in the draft lottery next year, will be without a first-rounder in 2014.
Though Kovalchuk's decision seemed to come out of nowhere, according to Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello, they had been talking about the possibility for a year.
For the KHL, repatriating Kovalchuk represents a major coup.
For years, the league has been trying to lure back the cream of the Russian player crop without much success.
Thus far, the biggest name to return was Alexander Radulov, who breached his entry-level contract with the Nashville Predators to play in the KHL. Nashville convinced Radulov to try it again in the spring of 2012, but the decision proved to be a disaster when he and Andrei Kostitsyn broke curfew during a playoff series against the Phoenix Coyotes and were suspended for disciplinary reasons. Nashville eventually lost the series and didn't fight too hard to keep either player, who both returned to play in the KHL.
This summer, Kostitsyn's younger brother, Sergei, left Nashville, too.
Mostly though, players who've returned to the KHL did so because they couldn't adapt to the NHL. Sometimes, because of the different playing style; sometimes, for cultural reasons.
Kovalchuk was different. Kovalchuk could – and did – adapt.
The first-overall pick in 2001 scored 816 points in 816 regular-season games, divided between New Jersey and the old Atlanta Thrashers. His English was excellent. He offered thoughtful and intelligent comments on any number of subjects, beyond hockey.
It is reasonable therefore to take Kovalchuk at his word when he said his decision was not spur-of-the-moment, but something he'd thought about "for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia. … [Lamoriello] was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me."
Kovalchuk's departure will cost the Devils a modest $250,000 annually in salary-cap recapture penalties they will be charged until the end of the 2024-25 season. But those who believe Kovalchuk just took the money and ran didn't analyze the financial figures too carefully.
The contract was not heavily front-loaded. Kovalchuk earned $6-million in each of the first two years of the deal, and then a pro-rated $11-million this past season.
The biggest paydays were yet to come – two more years at $11.3-million, one at $11.6-million, one at $11.8-million, another at $10-million, and then it started to drop – to $7-million, $6-million and then the final five years were worth a cumulative $10-million.
Nobody expected Kovalchuk to play it out, but nobody saw him leaving this early either. It is further proof the KHL may be evolving into the new WHA – and will make NHL teams even warier when it comes to drafting and developing Russian players.
Increasingly, they may determine the time, effort and expense isn't worth the risk of seeing them leave in the primes of their careers. Understandable though it may be, Kovalchuk's departure could be a game changer for professional hockey on two continents.
By the numbers
Kovalchuk earned $132,183 for every point he scored (174).
Or $291,129 for every goal he scored (79).
Or $117,948 for every game he played (195).