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Ilya Kovalchuk to China could be boon for NHL

Reports of ex-New Jersey Devil Ilya Kovalchuk leaving the KHL to play in China proved to be premature but the NHL will benefit if he does.

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The rumor sounded too good to be true. And maybe it was.

But don't give up on the idea of Ilya Kovalchuk joining the KHL's new Chinese expansion team just yet.

Word that the runaway Devil was ready to head far east spread quickly on Thursday when Agence-France Presse Moscow correspondent Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber shared Russian media reports that suggested Kovalchuk planned to leave SKA St. Petersburg for Beijing-based Red Star Kunlun.

The hubbub raised by the story forced SKA to tweet out a denial hours later.

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"Recent reports of possible changes in the SKA roster have nothing to do with reality," it read. "The team is fully focused on the playoff series with CSKA Moscow."

That's the sort of response you'd expect in a situation like this. As if Kovalchuk's situation wasn't enough of a distraction already—the last thing SKA needs now is for this story to jam a stick in its spokes.

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But that's likely what it's going to do, even if it makes about as much sense as Kovalchuk's decision to leave $77 million in guaranteed money on the table when he announced his retirement from the NHL in 2013.

At the time, he made it clear that he was motivated by the desire to return to Russia to be closer to his family. But the grass wasn't necessarily greener in the KHL. Although he was able to live with his family, and win a championship with SKA in 2015, he got sideways with coach Sergei Zubov this season and was benched for several games through the opening rounds of the playoffs. That rift led to rumors that Kovalchuk might try to expedite a return to the NHL.

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That talk was quickly shot down when the NHL's rules about coming out of retirement entered the picture. China though makes some economic sense. Especially if the initial report is accurate. That piece suggested that the decline of the Russian ruble, along with expanded financial opportunities in Beijing, were behind Kovalchuk's decision. Salaries for players on the new team, which is expected to begin operations next season out of the 18,000-seat LeSports Center, the site of the 2008 Olympic basketball tournament, “will be on average two times higher" than is being paid to KHL players in Russia.

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And there are probably more off-ice opportunities available in Beijing as well. Hockey is a non-factor in that country now, but that's going to change with the 2022 Olympics on the horizon. China has already partnered with the Czech Republic in an effort to upgrade its 38th-ranked program ahead of the Games and the arrival of an expansion team led by Kovalchuk would only enhance the sport's profile. Plus, as the new face of the sport in the world's largest country, he'd be in line to land lucrative sponsorship opportunities. If his motivation at this point is to grab as much cash as possible, this is the way to do it.

Kovalchuk's presence in China would be good news for the NHL as well. Before they can benefit from brand awareness, the league has to create interest in the sport itself. Both the NHL and member teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs have taken tentative strides in that direction, but they lack the ability to engage the locals on a day-to-day basis the way a team of their own would. If Kovalchuk can seize their imaginations the way he did in North America and Russia, this could be the start of something big for the game ... but only if the initial reports are true.