Inside Ilya Kovalchuk's decision to return to the NHL
LOS ANGELES -- Two beer-league players lugged their hockey bags to their designated ice sheet when one of them suddenly stopped, gazing out on the ice where the Los Angeles Kings were having a preseason practice.
"That's him. In the gray. On the far right. You see him?"
They gawked for a moment at Ilya Kovalchuk, whose presence at the Toyota Center in El Segundo did have a mythic quality. He cuts an imposing figure at 6-foot-3. At 35 years old, he still makes magic when the puck is on his stick, showing flashes of the offensive flourish that netted him 417 goals in 816 NHL games. But like any mythical creature, he's been rarely spotted: Kovalchuk has been away from North American rinks since 2013. That's when he retired from the NHL, leaving 12 years and $77 million on the table from his New Jersey Devils contract, and departed for Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, where he played the past six seasons.
He decided to return to the NHL this year, signing a three-year contract with the Kings with an annual salary-cap hit of $6.25 million. Then came the questions: What did he have left? What player could he be in a younger, faster league than the one he left for his homeland? These questions will be answered during the grinding NHL regular season. But there's one question that Los Angeles coach John Stevens feels Kovalchuk has already answered in the preseason: whether he's still deadly on the power play.
The answer? He definitely is.
"He's going to be a big factor," Stevens said. "We put him with Drew [Doughty] on the point. The way he holds the puck, his deception with what he's going to do with it ... I think he's as good as I've ever seen. Peter [Forsberg] was good like that: When you thought he was shooting, he was passing; when you thought he was passing, he was shooting. Kovalchuk has the ability to do that."
We spoke with Kovalchuk this week in Los Angeles about his NHL return, selecting the Kings, his time in Russia, winning Olympic gold and much more.
ESPN: What brings you back? Is it professional goals? Did you and your family miss the U.S.?
Kovalchuk: I achieved everything that I wanted when I went back to Russia. We won the Olympics. That was a main goal. Now, I think I have some gas left in my tank. I'm excited. I wasn't here for five years, and a lot of things changed, but it's great to be back.
ESPN: You used that "gas in the tank" line to describe yourself at the 2018 Winter Olympics as well. Look, in hockey years, you qualify as "old." There have been those who wondered if you can keep up in this speed-obsessed NHL.
Kovalchuk: I'm a young 35. (Laughs) No, I don't think about that. I prepare myself as best as I can during the summer. I show up to camp in the best shape that I can. I did what I had to do. But there's still a lot of work here. I have to adjust to the system. It's all new for me. It's a learning process, so it's good that we have some time before the first real games. The game is a little faster [than in the KHL]. You have less room. Less time. Playing in the preseason is a good welcome. Every game, I'll play better and better.
ESPN: Everyone on the Kings I've talked to said that you still have your shot, especially on the power play.
Kovalchuk: It's not going to go anywhere. You just have to get it through [the defense]. But the game can't only be the power play. And to be on the power play, you have to prove to your coach that you deserve to be there.
ESPN: You've been on a line with Anze Kopitar, who might be the most talented center you've ever had in the NHL. How excited are you to play with him?
Kovalchuk: He's great. I've played with some good centers, don't get me wrong, but this guy right now is in his prime. He won the Selke Trophy last year. He was nominated for MVP. He's an all-around player, but what's important to me is that he's a great man. He's a great person. He's a very loyal guy. He was texting and calling when I signed here. [It's] nice when people care.
ESPN: What was your favorite thing and your least favorite thing about the KHL?
Kovalchuk: It's a great league. Not every guy can make the NHL. Some guys from Europe want to be closer to home. It's a young league, but it's growing fast. A lot of new buildings. A lot of new fans. Hockey is the most popular sport in Russia. I played for a great organization [SKA St. Petersburg] that did everything that it takes to win and keep the players happy. I like everything about the KHL.
ESPN: Was there anything that frustrated you about the league?
Kovalchuk: No. I'm from there. I was with my buddies. Those five years went quick.
ESPN: How did you settle on the Kings for your NHL return? I know when you were in Russia, there was always talk that you wanted to live on the East Coast if you came back.
Kovalchuk: No, that's you guys. The reporters. You guys started that story and sent me to the Rangers already. We talked to a few teams, but I'm very excited to be here. It's a great city for the family. I have four kids, and they're all settled. There's a lot of things to do here. And good weather, obviously. But a great team, that's the most important thing. The same core group of guys from the 2014 one that won the Cup.
ESPN: Did I read that your family has settled in Beverly Hills?
Kovalchuk: Yes, renting a house there.
ESPN: For Americans, living in Beverly Hills is a big deal. It's a status symbol.
Kovalchuk: Oh yeah? Well ... we always live in the good areas. (Laughs) But the Beverly Hills is nice. The schools there are great. That's the reason we went there.
ESPN: We mentioned the Olympics earlier. What was that experience like? To finally win a gold medal for Russia, but to do so in an Olympics when you weren't technically Russia? Did it matter that you were the Olympic Athletes from Russia instead?
Kovalchuk: Obviously it did. When they take the flag and the national anthem and everything from you, it's not fun at all. We didn't know if we were even going to go or not, until the last few weeks. Thanks to [President Vladimir Putin], who decided to let the athletes determine if they were going to participate or not. Hockey is the main sport in the Olympics. Russia was there. We didn't have our name or our flag, but everything knew where we were from. We weren't allowed to say "Russia" or wear the sports suits with our flag. And that was tough. You walk around the Olympic Village and you see all those athletes with the great uniforms and the nice colors, and you're wearing a red no-name sports suit for two weeks straight ... it was a little different. But you start playing, you just think about the game. The whole country was behind us. It might have even brought more attention to the Olympics in Russia. People were supporting us, and when we came home, it was a big celebration. We made people happy. That's all that matters.
ESPN: You have Olympic gold, a world championship, a U18 gold and the Gagarin Cup in the KHL. How important is it for you to win the Stanley Cup now that you're back?
Kovalchuk: I don't like to think too far ahead. I have to settle here first. Understand the system. Get my game shape back. That's what I need to do.
ESPN: Speaking of the Cup, what was your reaction to Alex Ovechkin finally winning one?
Kovalchuk: It was great. I was watching their games. It's great when the guy achieves something big, because he deserves to win the Cup. The way he played in the playoffs was incredible. But overall [Washington] had a great team. That save that [Braden] Holtby made in Game 2 against Vegas was the key.
ESPN: And when you saw Ovechkin half-naked, swimming in a public fountain in Washington, D.C., after winning the Cup?
Kovalchuk: That's typical Ovi. I've known him since he was 10 years old. Nothing changes. He's a big kid.
ESPN: I've always wondered: The 17-year contract that you signed in New Jersey that was rejected ... there have been other NHL contracts that clearly tried to get around the salary cap, but yours was the only one that the NHL went after at the time. Did that bother you? Does it still bother you?
Kovalchuk: Not really. That's the rules. That's up to the agents and the general managers. I didn't negotiate with [Lou Lamoriello]. But I agree with that contract, and the league didn't. So we did another one. And it's not a big deal.
ESPN: Finally, you've been gone since 2013. The relationship between our countries has changed a bit over that time. Is that something you're aware of as you return to the U.S.? Is it at all awkward for you or your family?
Kovalchuk: No. For me, it's sports. We stay away from politics. It is a tough situation right now. But I think the [FIFA] World Cup showed what kind of country we are. We're very open. We want to wish everyone well. All those sanctions ... I hope one day they'll go away and our president will figure out something. Because it's two huge countries that have to work on the same side. A lot of people use sports as politics, but I just try to stay away. The U.S. is a great country. Same as Russia. Just enjoy living and be happy.