The Kontinental Hockey League, by most accounts the second-best league in the world, has its sights set on becoming the best. Central to that pursuit is the desire to bring home the top European exports to North America, and to that end one ambitious team has squarely targeted Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin.
The team is Dynamo Moscow. General director Andrey Safronov was quoted by Russia’s ITAR-TASS as saying that the team was interested in luring Ovechkin away from Washington. This translation via Fedor Fedin of the blog Russian Machine Never Breaks:
Ovechkin has a current contract with the Capitals. Can we try to pull him out? We’ll talk, we’ll look at each other and will have some result. Right now all Russian national team players want to come back to their homeland. KHL shows its force and credibility. And finances are important too. Taking taxes in account, playing in Russia has become way more attractive for players.
Asked to elaborate on those comments by Sports Express, Safronov re-emphasized the financial appeals of playing in Russia and said that while it would be impossible to bring Ovechkin over in time for 2013-14, it was something the team could do in the future.
The idea of a bona fide NHL star with a long-term, big-money contract leaving it all behind to go back to Russia might be laughable except for the fact that it has happened, and recently.
In July, Ilya Kovalchuk abandoned the New Jersey Devils just three seasons into a 15-year, $100 million contract. The 30-year-old will spend next season with the KHL’s SKA Saint Petersburg, making his departure from the Devils defection rather than retirement.
Kovalchuk’s dereliction of his NHL contract was certainly the most dramatic demonstration of the pull that the KHL has for top Europeans, but it is not an isolated incident.
Veteran NHL forwards have been returning home when their contracts ended, often in exchange for more money in the KHL. Nik Antropov, a 33-year-old veteran of 788 NHL games, signed there this summer; he follows a well-traveled path that several legitimate major-leaguers take every season. More than that, top young Russians seem increasingly likely to stay home rather than seek North American employment.
The result has been a sharp decline in the number of Russians in the NHL. Players like Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk are the standard-bearers for an ever shrinking contingent of Russian-born talent.
Additionally, with the KHL expanding to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Finland, the possibility of other European NHL’ers leaving cannot be discounted—potentially bad news for North American fans accustomed to seeing the world’s best hockey.
While the Russian exodus has started and a broader European pilgrimage may follow, Ovechkin says that it won’t include him:
I’m here and I’m gonna work for my contract. Not gonna worry about it. It’s nice to hear from my first club when I’m growing up, they want me. But I’m here and I have a contract.
While the KHL would love to get its hands on last season’s Hart trophy winner, it appears that Ovechkin is fully committed to the NHL and the Washington Capitals until his contract ends in 2021.
However, as the departure of Kovalchuk and others shows, the KHL is a viable option even for top NHL’ers. It is the closest thing that the best league in the world has had to a rival since the demise of the World Hockey Association.