Ilya Kovalchuk retires from the NHL.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.

Big news to recap today, with of course the biggest shocker of the offseason coming in yet another eventful moment for the New Jersey Devils.  Thanks to TSN.ca.

NHL scoring superstar Ilya Kovalchuk stunned the hockey world today when he announced his retirement from NHL hockey at just 30 years of age.  Following 11 simply brilliant seasons in the best league on the planet, Kovalchuk cites personal and family reasons for his retirement, with a return to Russia most likely in the cards.  Could that mean the KHL?  Well we’ll find out for sure in the coming days, but it seems extremely likely.

Image courtesy of blacksportsonline.com.

The news actually isn’t quite so shocking when you remember Kovalchuk lamenting the fact he had to return to the NHL following the lockout, and that he would have stayed with St Petersburg if he could.

Drafted 1st overall in 2001 by the Atlanta Thrashers, he made an immediate impact in the NHL scoring 29 goals and 51 points in 65 games, and increased his output each year until 2006 when he peaked with a 52 goal, 98 point performance.  He had a run of 6 straight 40+ goal years which included two 52 goal seasons, and 9 straight 30+ goal seasons.

He was traded to New Jersey in a blockbuster deal in 2010, and despite a slow start there eventually settled in before signing a massive 15 year, $100m contract with the team – a contract which caused the Devils to fall foul of the league which deemed they’d circumvented cap rules, requiring them to forfeit a first round pick at some point over the next few years (it ended up as the 2014 pick that will be forfeited).  A decent first full year followed by a great second year in a Devils uniform preceded a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, where Kovalchuk was among the top forwards despite playing injured and despite it being his first real lengthy taste of NHL playoff action.

In 11 seasons, Kovalchuk has collected 417 goals and 816 points in 816 games, an astonishing total in this day and age and showing what remarkable consistency he had.  He also was named to the All-Rookie Team in 2002, played in 3 NHL All-Star Games, won one Rocket Richard Trophy, was named to the 2nd All-Star Team in 2004 and the 1st All-Star Team in 2012.

That ladies and gentleman, is a brilliant career.

Image courtesy of NHLsnipers.com.

I know that Devils fans will be truly upset, and I totally understand.  It’s only natural, particularly with a player as electrifying as Kovalchuk to mourn the loss and even feel anger that it was his decision to leave.

And yet, I find myself at odds with those who are expressing rage towards the man, believing him to be greedy (despite leaving $77m on the table), selfish (if you call wanting to go back to his own country selfish, allowing him to be closer to his family then fine), and ruining the Devils (they never had to sign him to that contract, and by retiring now – and remember he didn’t do this midseason – he actually minimised the financial damage to the Devils should he have decided to retire next year – the penalty to the team for him retiring rises dramatically along with what his salary would have been as of 2014).

And then there are those who are using this incident as a platform to launch slander at Russian players.  To do so is just ridiculous, this is no more a Russian issue than it is a puppy issue!  Yes he is Russian, and they are in many cases a slightly different kind of personality to those we see in Western culture, but that does not make them bad, just different.  The NHL may be the best league in the world, but that doesn’t mean any player who decides to move to a different league is automatically a “piece of s***”, nor does it mean he “sucks” as the delightful Jeremy Roenick put it earlier.

Jason Gregor, a sports radio host and hockey blogger in Edmonton, said it best on Twitter when he reminded of the fact that in the 1970s that it wasn’t Russians “chasing money”, but Canadians: the WHA, the “rebel league”.

So I say leave Kovalchuk the hell alone (boy do I feel like that girl in the post-Britney Spears Meltdown video).  If you want to be upset that he left, that’s absolutely fine, just don’t get dumb about it.  It is in fact a testament to just how good he was.  And he was simply sublime.

Goodbye Ilya Kovalchuk, the NHL was a better place with you in it, but all the best in whatever path you choose next.

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