By Allan Muir
Just hours after signing a new four-year deal with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, Ilya Kovalchuk came clean Monday in the Russian publication Sovietsky Sport about why he left the NHL and what it means to him to be back home in Russia.
"I have no regrets," he said. "I'm sure I made the right decision."
He didn't offer up any surprises while explaining why he bailed out on the final 12 years and $77 million of a contract he signed with the New Jersey Devils to head home, but he did offer some insights into his stunning career change.
"I am very pleased that I played so long in the strongest league in the world, he said. "But I wasn't able to win the Stanley Cup. I was close last year, and experienced the challenge of the NHL playoffs. But there's no disappointment. I take a step forward in my career. I turn another page to a new goal and other possibilities.
"I still have the will and desire and passion for hockey. I have never in my career been a league champion. I hope I can make it happen in St. Petersburg."
The time spent back home during the NHL lockout played a significant part in his decision, Kovalchuk said.
"I was wishing I could stay there longer during the lockout. I saw the style of hockey, the quality of players. I liked everything. And [SKA] St. Petersburg is perfect for me. They have wonderful fans and strong management."
He said that he was grateful to New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello for understanding and cooperating after he learned of his desire to go home and spoke of the good times ahead for the franchise. "The Devils have a lot of good young guys who may in the future grow into great players, but I'm more comfortable in Russia."
Kovalchuk went on to gently refute the opinion expressed yesterday by his sister, Arina, who said he would look to return to the NHL at the end of the four years.
"I love my mother and sister very much. Everyone can have their opinion. But I'm going to Russia [to play], not to think about how to get back to the NHL."
The interviewer, Pavel Lysenkov, then asked what sort of advice he'd offer to Alex Ovechkin and other Russian players if they asked him about coming home to play.
"I would say you guys have your own head on your shoulders. You have to think about what's best for you," Kovalchuk said. "If they ever return to Russia, either now or after the end of their NHL contracts, the fans will be happy and the KHL will be even stronger. But everyone has to decide for himself."
Kovalchuk also took the high road when asked about Jeremy Roenick's comments. The former NHL star and current NBC broadcaster called Kovalchuk "selfish" and said he "stole $23 million from the Devils," in the moments after the news of his defection broke.
"Everyone has their own opinion on the matter," he said. "I stole something from someone? A normal person understands that was said purely on emotion. "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."