Ilya Kovalchuk is not a man who's afraid to make bold decisions.
In a stunning development, the New Jersey Devils announced on Thursday that their most talented and highest-paid player would be retiring from the NHL at age 30, the prime of his career, all while forfeiting the $77 million still remaining on his contract over the next 12 years.
Kovalchuk's decision is a perplexing one. Walking away from an enormous guaranteed salary while in the prime of your career in the world's best hockey league, Who does that?
Abandoning $77 million in guaranteed money would be a crazy decision for anyone to make whether you are a normal fan or a famous athlete. If Kovalchuk wanted to maximize his earnings with this contract, he would have retired after the 2017-18 season when the salary in the deal drops from $10 million to $7 million. Starting in 2020, the salary plummets to $1 million.
As the chart below shows, he's actually giving up his contract when the salary is nearing its highest point:
Even though he's giving up a substantial amount of salary, there is a report from Pavel Lysenkov of SovSport speculating that the former Devils star could earn a record-breaking salary in his home country. (The following text has been Google translated.)
"The exact amount we do not know, but if it is $15-20 million per year (for taxation at 13 percent), I would not be surprised."
So, it seems like Kovalchuk is going to do just fine financially, but is a higher salary of a few million dollars worth leaving the top hockey league in the world? The KHL is a strong league with a lot of talented players from all over the globe, but there is no question that the NHL is the highest level of competition in the sport.
The best hockey players that Canada, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and the United States have to offer play in the NHL. There will be some exceptions, but those are few and far between. To be the best, you must beat the best, and this challenge is only found in the NHL.
Kovalchuk will immediately become the best player in the KHL, largely because almost all of his country's best players would rather play in the NHL. Not only do elite Russian stars such as Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Bobrovsky enjoy the NHL, all three of them have signed contract extensions since the end of the 2013 season to stay in North America.
Malkin's new deal was for eight years, and while Datsyuk could have gone home to Russia for the last elite seasons of his career, he decided to extend his stay in the NHL until at least age 37 with a three-year extension.
These players probably could have made more money in the KHL, but the opportunity to play against the world's best and win the Stanley Cup is something too special to give up on. Similar to Kovalchuk, Malkin and Datsyuk played for KHL teams during last season's lockout, but that did not stop them from pledging their future to NHL clubs over the last few weeks.
Kovalchuk could have gone to the KHL later in his career and still have been a productive player in Russia. Going there right now makes little sense given his impressive NHL success (leads all players in the last decade with 388 goals) and lack of a Stanley Cup title. Leaving right now is just crazy, especially when he is still one of the 10-15 best players in the world.
Beyond the prestige and incredible level of talent in the NHL, it's also a much safer league than the KHL with better management at all levels. Toronto Sun reporter Rick Westhead provided an interesting description of the KHL in a story from January, 2012:
Gun-slinging owners, mandatory overnights in remote team bases, sometimes before home games, and even planting illegal drugs on high-priced players whose team owners want to stop paying is all part of life in the wild KHL, a hockey league that, high-profile warts notwithstanding, has quickly established itself as the second-best in the world outside the NHL.
Westhead further explained the conditions of the KHL:
But for some players, the drawback to Russia isn’t poorly stocked arenas or even two-a-day practices. A bigger worry is the amount of air travel that’s required in a country which last year recorded nine commercial airline crashes, giving it a worse safety record than less-developed nations like Congo and Indonesia.
Russia is an expansive nation with 13 time zones. A flight from Moscow to the KHL team in Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border, can take nine hours.
For all of the NHL's faults, there is no better place for a hockey player to enjoy the sport he loves and make a fair salary. For a star of Kovalchuk's caliber who was beloved by fans in New Jersey and around the league, leaving the NHL in the prime of his career is a foolish decision, especially when he was being compensated very well.
He was also playing for a first-class organization committed to winning, evidenced by the fact that since 1990, the Devils have missed the playoffs only three times.
Kovalchuk was well on his way to becoming one of the best players of his generation and ensuring his future enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame. But the latter doesn't seem likely after his choice to bolt from the NHL and head overseas.
A return to the NHL is possible, but making this move would be a challenge.
Kovalchuk has given up playing in a league with great working conditions, high salaries for superstars, the best competition in the world and the chance to win the sport's ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup.
Making more money and being closer to family will be nice for Kovalchuk, but it wouldn't be surprising if the Russian star soon regrets his NHL retirement when he's reminded of all the great memories and goals he never achieved in North America.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft. All salary information via CapGeek.