This summer, former New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk shocked the hockey world when he abruptly retired from the NHL after 11 seasons despite having 12 years and $77 million remaining on his contract.
Kovalchuk expressed his desire to return to his native Russia, and the Devils, in dire financial straits, elected not to fight him on it, voiding what was left of his contract and therefore allowing him to sign with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
At the time, many wondered if Kovalchuk's defection would start a trend of high-profile Russian NHLers bolting for home. Naturally, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin's name was included in the scuttlebutt -- he did say during last year's NHL lockout that he would remain in Russia and play in the KHL if his salary was drastically reduced, but that was more of a negotiating tactic than a legitimate threat -- and it has come up again thanks to recent comments from Dynamo Moscow general director Andrey Safranov.
"Can we try to pull him out [of his contract]? We’ll talk, we’ll look at each other and will have some result," Safranov reportedly said via a translation done by Russian Machine Never Breaks. "Right now all Russian national team players want to come back to their homeland. KHL shows its force and credibility. And finances are important too. Taking taxes in account, playing in Russia has become way more attractive for players."
Ovechkin, who has eight years and $79 million left on his contract and millions more in endorsement deals, will soon return to Washington as the Capitals open training camp next week. Wednesday, general manager George McPhee, not one to "deal in hypotheticals," did not directly comment on the situation, but did say that he has never felt as if Ovechkin's desire to remain in the NHL has waned.
“When we were trying to sign him the first time around we had just come out of a lockout and I think we had three days to sign him,” McPhee said in regards to negotiations with Ovechkin back in 2005. “He was under contract with a club over there – and I think he had a one or two day window to come here. We were on the phone with this parents, translators, I think there was a big group and Ovi kept telling his parents and everybody else in the room, ‘I want to play in the NHL.'
"From day one, this kid’s always wanted to play over here, and I don’t imagine he’s going to want to go back any time soon. He wants to win a Cup."
According to head coach Adam Oates, he has never received any sort of indication that Ovechkin wants to return to Russia, but then again, Oates said that he never received one from Kovalchuk, who he coached for two seasons in New Jersey, either. Oates, who referred to Safranov's comments as "propaganda," acknowledged Wednesday that the situation will be addressed with Ovechkin so that it does not become a distraction while the Capitals prepare for the season, which is less than one month away.
"Someone in Dynamo said, ‘We’re going to try and talk to him,' " Oates said. "That’s got nothing to do with us or Ovi, that’s from one guy over there. It’s an Olympic year there, it’s in Russia and maybe they’re trying to gain some notoriety with their league, some attention.
“He had a great year, a fantastic second half and I think he feels really good -- where he is right now, about his game and the unfinished business about continuing to take the organization farther down the line. Hopefully this doesn’t distract from that and we don’t make too much of it and it gets solved soon.”
The NHL and KHL have a "Memorandum of Understanding" which stipulates that both leagues will respect each other's contracts.
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