When the NHL made the decision to not shut down its operations in 2018 to allow players to go play in the Olympics, it was assumed there would be at least a few players who may seriously contemplate playing in another league for a year. Ilya Kovalchuk was already playing in the KHL, and his decision to play in the KHL another year was influenced by the NHL’s decision regarding the Olympics.
“One of the main factors was the upcoming Olympic Games,” Kovalchuck explained on the SKA St. Petersburg team website. “In 2018, only players who play in European championships and the KHL can compete there. It was important to stay with SKA, because I have only played here in the KHL. I have a lot of warmth for the club and our fans.”
Kovalchuck has already been a part of four Olympic teams for Russia, but the opportunity to play in a fifth was too much for him to pass on. Of course, how likely was he to return to the NHL? Kovalchuck has not played in the NHL since 2013, at which point he “retired” from the league three years into a 15-year deal with the New Jersey Devils. If he does decide to return to return to the NHL at some point, he would be required to play for the Devils (who are nowhere near ready to compete for a Stanley Cup).
The NHL has been letting players play in the Olympics since 1998, which has led to the league going into a shutdown mode for a few weeks to allow for the players to travel and play. No longer seeing a value in sending players to the Olympics, the NHL finally decided to keep its talent in house and cut down on the wear-and-tear of the players in the second half of the season. It’s a wise decision for the NHL but one that was frustrating to some.
Alex Ovechkin was among the many voices to criticize the league’s decision, and he suggested the possibility of players leaving for the KHL or elsewhere was a possibility. He even suggested he is still going to play in the Olympics, although that remains to be seen. Regardless, Russia was hoping the KHL would benefit from the NHL’s decision. Kovalchuck is just one player, but we’ll see if anyone else jumps to Russia for the chance to play in the Olympics next winter.