Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 7/12/13
Almost nine years ago when the NHL was shut down for a season-ending lockout, I traveled nearly 6,000 miles to the Republic of Tatarstan to catch up to and write about Ilya Kovalchuk, once the star for the Atlanta Thrashers (now Winnepeg Jets). A number of things stick out from that trip: The minus-16-degree Celsius temperatures in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan where Kovalchuk played for the local team, Ak Bars, was one. So did the sight of the suns setting at 3 p.m. The calendar had yet to hit December, but already the wide Kazanka River had frozen. It was the coldest place by far I had ever set foot. When it came to takeaways regarding Kovalchuk, his visceral dislike for the team and the league he was playing for stand out. All of which render his decision to retire abruptly from the NHL at age 30 and forgo the 77 million he was guaranteed on his contract now terminated all the more baffling. Kovalchuk reportedly has done so in order to play with SKA St. Petersburg in Russia's KHL, a move that has not yet formally been announced. While time changes many things, it's hard to reconcile how Kovalchuk's ideas could have changed so dramatically. When I saw him for the first time after arriving on my trip, I received a hearty hello, despite the fact we did not always have the smoothest dealings. I was the team's beat reporter and he was the hot-headed young star, which meant he often had to answer questions that he did not enjoy answering when he broke team, league or unwritten rules. At the time I first saw him, he and the other players on the team were running through the hallways of the old 3,000-seat Kazan Arena, from one exercise area to another. They had been in the gym playing basketball, as European training methods are more eclectic than those in North America. The long training days were just one of the things that irritated Kovalchuk about the Russian Super League, as it was then known. In the NHL, the collective bargaining agreement spells out that teams cannot force players to spend more than three hours at the practice facility. That includes on-ice workouts, video and off-ice workouts. The notion of such a union was laughable in the Russian Super League and the players enjoyed no such protections. As a result, the coaches, mostly products of the Soviet era, could drive the players as hard as they wanted to and work them out as long as they wanted to. (Not to mention that coaches could fine players capriciously.) Despite the warm greeting I originally received, it took some wrangling to set up the interview I had traveled so far to get. It took place in the bar of the swanky Pyramid, the modern hotel where all of the Kazan players stayed and was owned, it was said, by the son of the president of the oil-rich republic. By this time, Kovalchuk had played in the NHL for three seasons and conducted all of his interviews in English, yet he insisted on speaking in Russian and using a translator this particular time. The translator happened to be the Thrashers Russian scout, who doubled as my guide. The move was typical of Kovalchuks headstrong behavior. As he matured in the NHL, antics like that occurred less frequently. Nonetheless, his move to retire from the NHL has its roots in the same kind of dynamic he showed in his early days, often chafing under authority (apparently, he once swore at his coach during a video review session as a rookie). Midway through that 2004-05 Russian season, he chafed under the authority of his Russian club and his distaste for the league was palpable. "At first I wanted the lockout to last a little while so I could play here," he said then. "Now, I want to come back and play in the NHL." And that was the thing: Kovalchuk rarely equivocated about wanting to play in the NHL. Even in 2005 when he had a protracted and difficult contract negotiation with the Thrashers, forcing him to miss the first three games of the NHL season, he always credited the NHL for being the best league in the world, while stating his ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup. Suddenly, those things don't matter to him anymore? Thats hard to reconcile. I have occasionally referred to him in print as "mercurial." Perhaps nothing sums up this dissonance better than that word. Kovalchuk bemoaned the lack of privacy while playing in Russia, as well as the lack of amenities. He could not get good television stations. Cities like Kazan had few places for the wealthy players to spend their free time. As a result, team officials were aware of everything the players did. "Were like prisoners here," Kovalchuk said. "Everyone knows everything around (here). You go to some bar or restaurant and the bill directly goes to (Kazans general) manager." He wasn't joking. But it wasn't just privacy, it was also the difference between travel conditions. NHL players stay in luxury hotels on the road. In Russia, many cities do not approximate anywhere near that level of accommodations. During my trip, Michael Farber, then writing for Sports Illustrated, happened to be in Kazan to report on the story of Canadians Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier, who were also playing for Kazan. Farber wrote an anecdote that infuriated the locals about Darius Kasparaitis, citing his complaints of a seat-less toilet in one of the arenas. (I also ran into this situation in Kazan, though my incident didnt make it into my copy.) Again, these are the kinds of things Kovalchuk will have to deal with as he embarks on life in his new league. As a Russian native who has played in his home country twice during NHL lockouts and before that as a young player, he undoubtedly remains well aware of these conditions. He is said to have wanted to make this move for months and that New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello spent weeks trying to talk him out of it. It's been almost 25 years since the Iron Curtain lifted and Russian players joined the NHL. Coincidentally, the Devils were the first franchise to land a Russian in the great defenseman Slava Fetisov. With Kovalchuk and other lesser players returning home, it's possible the NHL has seen its high watermark for Russian stars. They face great pressure from their government to play in the KHL and stand to reap huge riches by complying. Still, it's hard to envision how Kovalchuk's mind could change so dramatically.
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