Why Couldn’t You Just Be Honest, Ilya Kovalchuk?

Corey Griffin

Ilya Kovalchuk finally arrived as Devils camp yesterday and needless to say, he is soooooo happy to be back in the NHL. The KHL? Those brown paper bags filled with off-the-books bookoo bucks? What?! He never wanted to stay there! He doesn’t know where you guys are getting that from.

Look, I haven’t been bothered by this story from the outset. I understood the whole political wrangling of it all — the KHL asking Ilya and the rest of “The Russian 4″ (Datsyuk, Ovechkin, Malkin) to help their native league make a statement to the big, bad NHL. Then there’s the allure of playing at home, in front your family and friends and the fact that the KHL can pay him a lot more than the NHL can — on the books and otherwise.

But then Kovy decided to go and play dumb today at the Prudential Center and that got me all sorts of riled up. It’s just all so damn disingenuous and ridiculous.

Follow me after the jump for a trip down the Russian rabbit hole…

From Wednesday:

“I never thought about wanting to stay because I have a contract,” he said. “How could I stay (there) when I have a contract here?”

Fair point about the contract, Ilya. NHL deals are pretty iron-clad and difficult to get out of (unless you re-write the CBA, right Glen Sather?). But you were pretty clear about wanting to stay a week ago. You know, when you told the Russian media, according to one of those media members:

“I want to stay in St. Petersburg but I have contractual obligations in the NHL, which will be hard to break.” (Jan. 10, 2013)

The Google translate version of that quote is roughly the same, but we’ll provide it for posterity’s sake:

“I want to stay this year in St. Petersburg, but I have a contractual obligation to the NHL, which will be very hard to stop, because I have a large and long contract,” Kovalchuk said. “So far not even imagine how it will look.”

Unless you speak without thinking, Ilya, I’d say you might want a mulligan on that one. But OK, I’ll let you go on that one. It’s not like you’re going to trot out the old, sorry “the media totally took me out of context” excuse.

Still, Kovalchuk said the talk of him staying in the KHL was a product of the media in Russia and nothing he said.

“I don’t know where you read all those comments but I have a contract here, and in the KHL they have a rule that as soon as the lockout ends, we come back, so nobody has a choice,” he said.

That Russian media. They’re a bunch of tricksters and word magicians, aren’t they Ilya? They were probably the ones who made you figure skate at the All-Star Game!

It’s OK for you to admit you wanted to stay, Ilya. It’s your home and at the very least you were definitely under pressure from KHL and SKA St. Petersburg president (not a conflict of interest at all) Alexander Medvedev to put on a unhappy face and try to make it appear like you really, really wanted to stay in Russia. And let’s not forget the rumors that Russian president Vladimir Putin offered you and the rest of “The Russian 4″ a reported $30 million each to bounce on Bettman and hang ten at home.

From Wednesday:

Kovalchuk, who has 13 years left on his contract with the Devils, said he never spoke to Medvedev about that. He also said rumors that Russian president Vladimir Putin was offering him an outrageous sum of money to stay in the KHL was “not true.”

“I’m sure he’s got some other stuff to take care of.” Kovalchuk said of Putin. “I had a great time there, we have a good team, but I have a contact here and I’m happy I’m back. The lockout’s ended and it’s great for hockey and especially for the guys who weren’t able to play and waiting. I’m happy we’re all back and hope for an exciting season.

Unfortunately Ilya, there’s a couple things wrong here. We’ll start with the contract thing. You deny that there was any talk with Medvedev about the 13 years left on your contract, yet two days before your “I really want to stay but I have this really long contract” pity party, there was Medvedev puffing out his chest and threatening to challenge the validity of NHL contracts signed under the old CBA by using the NHL’s new legal document against them.

Via The Globe and Mail on Jan. 8, 2013:

Russian oil baron and league president Alexander Medvedev told Russian media the players were not inclined to abide by a previous agreement to honour NHL contracts.

“The NHL’s opinion of itself is so high. … Okay, let them get drunk on their greatness,” Medvedev was quoted saying in SportsDaily.ru (in translations by Sport-Express reporter Slava Malamud) on Tuesday. “We’ll see how many Euros look our way.

“A number of players have either decided to stay or are looking into it. …Our league will act according to our own and international rules. If players decide to stay, we will help them.”

I’m sure the president of your Russian team never talked to you about wanting to keep you in Russia. And you two never chatted about trying to find a way to void that $100-million deal with 13 years left on it by using CBA language. And I’m also sure the general manager of your KHL club (which Medvedev, the KHL president, owns) just randomly picked a day to say SKA St. Petersburgh would do “everything possible” to keep Ilya Kovalchuk in the KHL hours before you broke your media silence and told everyone that your awful, terrible, really mean NHL contract was the only thing making you leave Russia. Funny the GM and you would pick the same day to speak and on the day after the NHL owners voted to ratify the new CBA. Strange, isn’t it? Hmm.

No? Well, OK then. Maybe Medevdev doesn’t have power like that. I mean he’s ONLY the president of the only professional hockey league in Russia. But if he doesn’t have the power to flip the NHL the bird and keep his Russian superstars home, who would? What about Putin? Oh, right! He’s “got some other stuff to take care of.” Except, I would imagine the KHL is probably part of that “stuff,” given that the most high-profile teams are all owned by government agencies.

Take this from a Nov. 9, 2012 article in The Globe and Mail:

Take SKA Saint Petersburg. There is a direct line from Putin to the team. Putin is the head of government, which controls Gazprom, one of the world biggest energy companies and natural gas exporters, which in turn owns the Saint Petersburg team. If the same ownership thread were replicated in Canada with the Maple Leafs, the Leafs would in effect be a crown corporation. Dynamo Moscow is owned by the Russian ministry of internal affairs. Tretiak’s old team, CSKA Moscow, is owned by Kremlin-controlled Rosneft, Russia’s biggest oil company.

Seems to me like the Russian government, and by proxy the man IN CHARGE of the Russian government, would have a decent-size interest in their country’s huge energy company, which happens to own the signature franchise in a league the government is openly trying to grow into a direct competitor to the NHL. And thus, if you follow the money, Ilya, and I was taught to always follow the money…

If you follow the money, Ilya, you see that keeping guys like you and Pavel Datsyuk and Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin playing in the KHL despite the NHL lockout ending would probably mean A LOT MORE MONEY for this league and thus A LOT MORE MONEY for the Russian government. And really, Ilya, that’s what this whole thing was about from the beginning. The money. You went to Russia to make boat loads of it during the lockout and you didn’t want to come back because the rules are a lot more flexible when they’re constantly changing so the government can outfit a more appealing aka more profitable league. You know, like that whole time they completely disregarded amended the salary cap in order to lure you and other Russian NHLers back home.

And in the end, you came back to the NHL because you followed the money. After all the public stances and hand-ringing and whining, Medvedev and Putin realized they couldn’t fight the NHL over this because then the NHL wouldn’t allow its players to go to the Sochi Olympics and we all know how important that is to Putin and Co. And you, Ilya, you realized that if you really tried to play hardball here, the IIHF would have stepped in and forced the KHL to honor its contract ceasefire with the NHL. Then, the odds are pretty good you would have been suspended by the IIHF, which means you couldn’t play in the KHL, NHL or the Sochi Games. Guess how much money you get, then? Yeah, exactly.

Honestly, Ilya, it would have been better if you just came out and said the same thing you said Jan. 10, 2013. You loved playing at home. You loved playing in front of your family. But you had a contractual obligation to play in the NHL and you had to honor it. Then you could have gone off with some platitudes about how you’re only focused on the Devils now that you’re here and how your only goal is to finish the job and win the Stanley Cup. But you didn’t and it made you look ridiculous and childish. But then again, that’s pretty much how you and the KHL have played this whole thing from the start: like a petulant child who didn’t get what they want.