Much as been said about Ilya Kovalchuk's retirement from the NHL, the large amount of money he left on the table in North America and his return to Russia to play for SKA St. Petersburg. Every pundit has weighed in, Jeremy Roenick has had a Twitter meltdown, Don Cherry has had his say. It seems like everyone has spoken, including half of Kovalchuk's family, except for the man himself.
Today, after signing a four-year deal with SKA, Kovalchuk finally spoke to the media. His reasons for leaving the NHL were what many expected: he wanted to play at home, the lockout got him thinking about it, and he wanted to leave New Jersey in the best way possible. In response to Roenick's Twitter comments, Kovalchuk said this:
“Roenick was a good hockey player. And I think in his career there were situations where it was necessary to make a decision that is best for the player and his family. I’m not going away to the moon or China or Japan. I’m going home, to be with my mom, sister, and all my friends. I’m much more comfortable in Russia.”
You can't get much more clear than that. And yes, while he had a contract with the New Jersey Devils, the contract was not a good one. The team recognized that. Both sizes seized on an opportunity to get what they wanted while not holding the other side back. Kovalchuk is going home where he wants to be, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Put yourself in his shoes. You've been away from home for huge chunks of time since 2001. You've never really felt like you belong where you live. You have children that you don't want to grow up without knowing their native culture. You have family very close to where you could be playing. And, most importantly, you have an out card that is being handed to you by the team that you play for. You're not losing any money by going to play in the KHL. You may, in fact, be making more of it. It's not about "honor," as Cherry put it. It's about what's doing what is best for you and your family. That's the reason Kovalchuk gave for leaving Atlanta, and that's the reason Kovalchuk is giving for leaving the NHL. You can't accuse him of being dishonest in the least.
"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.”
Still, you hear the old "Kovy has no heart" arguments, or "Kovalchuk's a selfish Russian." Both of these ignore the facts. Kovalchuk has played through some nasty injuries, most notably in the 2012 playoffs. Kovalchuk isn't being fully selfish here. He made it as easy for the Devils to agree to something they didn't have to agree to, and he's making the decision that he feels is best for his family.