While Ilya Kovalchuk was announcing his decision to flee the New Jersey Devils for Mother Russia on Thursday, many Columbus Blue Jackets fans back in central Ohio nodded their heads with a lack of surprise.
Columbus has had its share of issues with Russian-born players over the last decade. We can relate.
At the same time, it is casting an unfair stigma on a whole country and its hockey players, thanks to the actions of a select few.
What those select few players have done will give fans and general managers pause when it is time to negotiate contracts with Russian-born stars of the NHL.
Merely the threat of leaving for Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League gives Russian players leverage not generally shared by other players.
Columbus just went through that song and dance with its star goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky. Rumors of a $10 million per year contract from Russia caused angst and stress among Jacket fans.
The truth of the matter still remains: Most Russian players talented enough to play in the NHL, want to play in the NHL.
The National Hockey League is still the best hockey league in the world. Travel, living conditions and team facilities in North America are still considerably better than in foreign leagues. The chances for making endorsement money is still greater here than anywhere else.
Here is the problem: Perception is reality. Especially in contract negotiations.
Fast-forward two years in the future. Sergei Bobrovsky has just finished two more great seasons for Columbus. The Jackets, of course, offer him a long-term contract to keep him in Columbus.
While it is unfair, they must consider what the franchise would do if Bobrovsky, or any other player for that matter, would abandon their contract to leave for Russia.
No team can prepare for that. Kovalchuk’s move will cripple New Jersey short-term. It is too late to sign any top-level free agents this year, and they will be forfeiting their first round pick next year as punishment for the Kovalchuk deal.
The worst part is that it is unfair to the majority of Russian players. While we will gladly cheer on at least four Russians this winter – Bobrovsky, Artem Anisimov, Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin – we remember those who did not pan out in Columbus.
We will never forget Nikolay Zherdev and Nikita Filatov. They are both part of a lost decade of draft picks as well as failures of Russian-drafted players.
This is unfair because during that same time, there have been many other Columbus draft picks that have also not panned out.
Remember Alexandre Picard, the eighth-overall pick in 2004? What about Gilbert Brule, sixth-overall pick in 2005? They are not Russian. They are Canadian. Nobody is suggesting the organization stay away from Canadians.
So we Columbus fans can understand the anger New Jersey fans are directing at Kovalchuk and Mother Russia today.
Kovalchuk has not done his fellow Russian hockey players any favors with his actions.