NFC Championship Preview: The Game We All Wanted

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No Place Like Home

Visiting Ilya Kovalchuk in Russia

It was pretty bittersweet to see Ilya Kovalchuk so elated. But there he was on YouTube, singing and smiling, even pumping his fist like a bad karaoke singer. He looked radiant, glowing. His hair, which NHL fans remember rippling out the back of his helmet as he flew down the ice, had been boyishly shorn. With the cut, a few years of his life seemed to have returned.

The Russian video was a promotion for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, and it featured the country’s biggest hockey names of present and past — Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Bure, Evgeni Malkin, even Vladislav Tretiak — singing along to the pop song “Shaybu! Shaybu!”1 The video was recorded about a year ago, during the unpleasant heights of the NHL lockout, and finally released this fall.

In the interim (specifically, on July 11) I got an alert from my NHL app announcing that Kovalchuk had retired. I didn’t know what to make of the news. After all, the 30-year-old forward had 12 years and $77 million remaining on his NHL contract. Was he hurt? No, because if he were, he’d be collecting those massive paychecks from the comfort of injured reserve. Maybe he’d just had enough of the game? That was possible, but seemed kind of odd — just a year earlier he’d been playing in the Stanley Cup final.2 If he’d really been so burned out, he wouldn’t have spent his time during the lockout playing in Russia …

Oh wait, Russia. That had to be it.

Sure enough, Kovalchuk planned to return to his motherland; he wanted to spend more time with his family, he said, and raise his daughter and two sons there. Standard retirement language, except this wasn’t a retirement from hockey — just from the NHL. Days after his announcement, Kovalchuk signed a contract with SKA St. Petersburg, the Kontinental Hockey League team he had played for during the work stoppage. The four-year deal made him the highest-paid player in the KHL, where this year he’ll earn a reported $10.3 million.3

And it also made Kovalchuk — a former no. 1 overall pick, a three-time All-Star and Olympian, a guy who averaged a point a game in his 11 seasons with the Devils and the Atlanta Thrashers — the highest-profile player yet to leave North American hockey for the KHL, currently the most aspirational league in the world.

I wasn’t mad as I watched the “Shaybu!” video, nor did I harbor a grudge. I knew how much he’d enjoyed playing in the KHL during the lockout, so I wasn’t surprised. But Kovalchuk looked so buoyant, so comfortable, as he shouted silly song lyrics in a room full of his peers, that a small part of me just felt jealous. It was like happening upon a Facebook photo album of an ex looking blissful with someone new. Why couldn’t we make him that happy? I wondered. What do they have that we don’t? I went to Russia to see for myself.

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The sun plays hard-to-get when you’re in St. Petersburg during hockey season. This time of year, it doesn’t rise until nearly 10 a.m., and even then it remains shy. One Sunday in late November, as I walked along the Neva River and resigned myself to another day of mildly oppressive semi-darkness, light finally sliced through the low-slung clouds. It wasn’t even that bright, but it felt blinding. I took pictures. Later that day, as if out of some sort of meteorological penance, the skies drizzled for hours.

With its European-style architecture set against arteries of canals, St. Petersburg is occasionally pitched to travelers as the “Venice of the North.” (So far north that if you find it on a globe and trace your finger west, you hit the Baltic and North Seas, graze the frozen southern coast of Greenland, and eventually wind up in the Yukon before looping back around via Alaska and Siberia.) Its palatial pastel buildings — Easter-egg yellow and spearmint green and girlhood-bedroom pink — might border on the cartoonish under a more consistent sun’s glare, but against the drab November panorama they were welcome swatches of whimsy.4

The SKA St. Petersburg hockey club plays in the 12,300-seat Ice Palace, which was originally constructed to hold the 2000 IIHF World Championship. (Russia finished 11th.) The arena is directly across from a subway station with escalators so vertiginously never-ending that I came away convinced the trains were powered directly from the earth’s core. Inside the Ice Palace you can buy hot dogs, or dainty bread-cheese-mayo sandwiches that wouldn’t be out of place at a baby shower. A number of vendors inside the concourse devote themselves solely to slinging boiled ears of corn.

That night, St. Petersburg was playing Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, a struggling franchise located roughly 1,100 miles southeast. I’d been to two SKA home games already that week. They’d won both, but you wouldn’t have known it from the dour postgame press conferences with coach Jukka Jalonen. (“Quite bad” is how he summarized, stone-faced, one of the team’s victories.) He appeared to be under some pressure — not surprising considering SKA is a marquee team, with the highest payroll, in a striving league. Also, Russian president Vladimir Putin is a SKA fan, which raises the stakes.

On paper, SKA was undoubtedly better than Nefekhimik, but on the ice, St. Petersburg had given up a lead and the two teams were tied late in the game. Fans inside the Ice Palace were growing restless. Everyone seemed just a little bit off (except for the cheerleaders dotting each aisle, whose stoic smiles and stiff moves never wavered). Several times, Kovalchuk threw almost impossibly precise passes onto the sticks of his teammates, and several times, his teammates totally whiffed on receiving. It was like watching a wide receiver drop a ball that hit him right in the numbers.

In the third, a Nefekhimik player stupidly tried to break up a SKA scoring chance by shooting a broken stick shard at the point. St. Petersburg was awarded a penalty shot, which Kovalchuk took. He skated in alone from center ice and pulled the puck to his forehand. This was exactly the kind of situation for which he’d been poached from the NHL. He saw a hole just above the goalie’s left leg and shot. My story was writing itself. Pad save. The game remained tied. Never mind.

Kovalchuk wasn’t finished, though. With just over three minutes left in regulation, he got the puck in the left corner and shielded it with his deceptively agile 230-pound frame. He cut back down below the goal line, skated in toward the net, and — at the last possible second — sent a pass through the crease to his streaking teammate, Maxim Chudinov. There would be no bobbled reception this time, just a game-winning one-timer past a goalie who was, thanks to Kovalchuk’s distraction, almost entirely out of position.

The SKA St. Petersburg goal song blared over the PA system: first a soaring, operatic aria that inspired images of ballet and tsarinas and the onion-domed cathedrals of the grand imperial era; and then, upon its lovely crescendo, a segue seamlessly into the opening bars of … “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” It was divine.

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“NHL’s opinion of itself is so high,” scoffed Kontinental Hockey League head honcho Alexander Medvedev last January. “OK, let them get drunk on their greatness. We’ll see how many Euros look our way.”

Medvedev was bitter because the NHL lockout had recently ended and a number of top Russian-born stars were being called back to North America. Along with Kovalchuk, players like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Pavel Datsyuk5 had spent the lockout in Russia and were poised to play in the KHL All-Star Game when the NHL and its players association finally reached an agreement. According to a series of tweets by the New York Post’s Larry Brooks, that foursome had contemplated staying behind en masse, with Putin himself offering enormous paydays if they’d remain in the KHL.

Like so many threats thrown around during the lockout, these turned out to be mostly empty.6 All the players returned to their NHL teams for the 48-game truncated season, but it would be Kovalchuk’s last. He couldn’t shake the desire to go back to Russia.

“After the season was over, I went to Lou [Lamoriello, the Devils’ GM] to see if it was possible,” Kovalchuk said simply, “and we made it possible.”

Quite the understatement, considering that Kovalchuk’s departure from the Devils was one of the more bizarre situations in recent league history. Then again, so was his arrival. After being traded to New Jersey by the Thrashers in 2010, Kovalchuk signed a 17-year, $102 million contract that so brazenly laughed in the face of the collective bargaining agreement’s loopholes that the NHL not only voided the deal, it also amended the CBA and retroactively punished the Devils for salary-cap circumvention.7 A new contract of $100 million over 15 years was ultimately approved, and yet here Kovalchuk was, only three years later, wanting (and getting) out after realizing he’d rather be in Russia.

The Devils could have obstructed his exit but chose not to, ostensibly because the financially struggling franchise realized it could eliminate a substantial long-term liability this way, so to speak. And so, just like that, Ilya Kovalchuk was — poof — gone. He arrived in St. Petersburg a national hero.

“Guys kinda had a feeling he was gonna come back, but didn’t want to say it,” said Kevin Dallman, a Canadian defenseman who is playing in his second season for SKA after four years with Barys Astana, a KHL team in Kazakhstan.8 “Everyone here was excited — he’s a great player and he brings a lot of leadership and makes everyone a better player. I mean, it obviously sucked for the NHL, and they weren’t too happy about it, and people are still sour about it, but I think it’s really good for us.”

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The Kontinental Hockey League rose in 2008 out of the Russian Superleague and has been seeking to expand outside its country of origin, both geographically and figuratively, ever since.

“I would like the KHL generally turned into a pan-European hockey league that has expanded its borders at the expense of Sweden,” Putin told a Russian hockey blog in 2011.9 The Russian president, who once described his skating skills as like a “cow on ice,” also confessed a “terrible secret: I not only supported, I … initiated [and] came up with the KHL.”

Teams are scattered across the enormousness of the Russian landscape, as far-flung as Admiral Vladivostok, which joined the KHL this season and is adjacent to North Korea and the Sea of Japan, and Amur Khabarovsk, a 90-minute flight to the north. (Unless these two teams are playing one another, their next-closest opponents are roughly a New York–to–San Francisco flight away.)

But seven of the league’s 28 teams are from European countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, and Ukraine. Beginning next season, Finland’s premier organization — Jokerit — will leave the Finnish SM-Liiga and join the KHL. A few years ago the league did away with Cyrillic lettering on its jerseys to make them more desirable to global fans.10 A few legacy Cyrillic letters remain, though, like the K in KHL, which the league preserved so as to stand out from all the motley CHLs that exist in the world.

Tragedy and general disarray marred the early years of the league. In 2008, New York Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov collapsed on the bench during a game. The arena was without a defibrillator, there was no ambulance present, and the 19-year-old first-round pick died. Stories abounded of shady deals, unacceptable facilities, and unpaid players. At the start of the 2011 season, the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team was killed when its plane crashed on takeoff.

Even as the league expands, the teams lose money; recently the KHL had to loan funds to Spartak Moscow so that it could make payroll. But the old arenas have slowly been phased out, payroll logistics are said to have improved, and the looming specter of Putin has scared would-be deadbeat owners straight.

“The most noticeable change is all the rinks,” said SKA’s Alexei Ponikarovsky, who spent 13 years in the NHL, played alongside Kovalchuk on the 2012 Devils team that went to the final, and is now in his first full KHL season.11 “Because of KHL rules they can’t be more than five years old, and every team that wants to be in the KHL has to build a new rink or do a renovation or whatever. So that brings the quality up of the facility, and then everything else. Before that all the rinks were so old — back from the USSR.”

Kovalchuk, who like Ponikarovsky had played in the old Russian Superleague during the lost 2004-05 NHL season, agreed.

“The people who played here during the lockout, I think they understand how good it is,” he said. “It’s a good league. It’s growing, it’s young, but there’s new rinks around and the level of hockey is getting better.”

At this point, many of the KHL’s biggest issues are about how to best handle its international expansion. Some teams play on Olympic-size ice, while others — like newcomer Medvescak Zagreb, in Croatia — use rinks with NHL dimensions. And teams based in Russia can have only five “imports” on the roster, while European clubs are allowed to have as many as they want. The majority of the Medvescak roster are North Americans.

To KHL observers, Putin’s obsessive control over the upcoming Olympic Games (which are being held in a resort town where he owns vacation property) is reminiscent of the way he has been growing the KHL for years: by consolidating loyalty and throwing money at problems. He has encouraged or pressured — depending, of course, on whom you ask — some of the country’s wealthiest and most influential oligarchs and even government operatives to finance KHL teams, none of which currently turn a profit. (“A mix of corporate social responsibility and the deft kissing of Kremlin butt” is how Globe and Mail writer Eric Reguly put it.)

Team owners include industrial giants like Severstal (steel) and MMK (metals and mining) and quasi-nationalized oil behemoths like Rosneft and Gazprom. Vladivostok, the club near Japan, joined the league partly to tie in with strategic Far Eastern development projects backed by Putin. And Medvedev, formerly a Gazprom executive and once the president of SKA, was tapped by the Russian president a few years ago to run the league out of Moscow.

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As if the “Shaybu! Shaybu!” video weren’t already painful enough, it turns out that the song’s lyrics are supremely trollific. According to reporter Slava Malamud, one verse can be translated as:

The kind of miracles that happen sometimes
This one’s like a joke, kinda
The most fitting game for our Russian guys
Was accidentally born in Canada

For years, the flow of hockey players between Russia and North America went almost entirely in one direction, as NHL executives eager to snag a competitive advantage teamed up with Eastern bloc players who wanted to play in the top league in the world. Tal Pinchevsky’s excellent book Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL — The Untold Story of Hockey’s Great Escapes recounts many of these cinematic defections, some involving clandestine meetings in the woods and/or KGB agents trailing players through European hotels.

Legendary Red Army coach Viktor Tikhonov was notorious for his unforgiving training regimen and his fierce possessiveness over his national team members; he made their lives hell if he suspected they were thinking of leaving Russia. But that didn’t stop older players like Slava Fetisov from finally flying west, nor did it prevent younger hotshots like Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov from defecting to the NHL.12

As the USSR crumbled, so did Russian players’ fear of retribution against them (and their families) for leaving, and the ’90s brought many more guys from far abroad to the NHL. When the Rangers won the Cup in 1994, Alexei Kovalev and Alexander Karpovtsev were among the first four Russians to have their names etched onto it. Then came the Red Wings and their Russian Five. Today a number of the league’s biggest stars, from Ovechkin to Malkin and Datsyuk, are Russian.

But the number of Russian-born players in the league has fallen of late. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston points out that there were 51 Russians in the league in the 1997-98 season; last year, there were 28. The KHL’s combination of big money, lower taxation, and none of this escrow nonsense is alluring to many players — Alexander Burmistrov left the Winnipeg Jets for Ak Bars Kazan; the KHL nearly poached Sergei Bobrovsky this summer after his Vezina-winning season; and Evgeny Kuznetsov, a highly regarded Caps prospect, has left fans guessing for years as to whether or when he’ll come to Washington.13 The KHL is clearly on the lookout for potential recruits, and even made a change to its rulebook that gives teams salary-cap leeway when going after noteworthy NHL guys. (It should be pointed out that this list includes the likes of Ruslan Fedotenko.)

Even former defectors like Mogilny and Fedorov are now in the KHL fold. Mogilny is the GM of the new Admiral Vladivostok team, while Fedorov is the general manager of CSKA Moscow; at age 44, he also recently suited up for the Spengler Cup. After this year’s NHL Winter Classic alumni game — during which the Red Wings’ Russian Five were reunited — Fedorov was asked about his country’s reaction to Kovalchuk’s move.

“It was huge,” he said. “It was really interesting for our fans in Russia, I think country and KHL really went nuts about that. And Russian people really — like humans — felt really warm and good in their heart. [I’m] glad we got somebody that will cheer us on by the way they play. That kind of feeling.”

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“I grew up in this city, and there’s only one hockey team named SKA in this town,” said Alexei Gusarov, one of the team’s assistant coaches, who spent three years playing for SKA Leningrad in the early ’80s before going on to play for Tikhonov at CSKA Moscow (better known as the Red Army team) and, eventually, in the NHL.14 “The program is the same one as when I was a boy. I wore this jersey when I was 12 years old, and my father wore this jersey.”

Over the years, St. Petersburg has gone through several name changes, each one a clear sign of the times. The city first got its name from its czar founder Peter the Great, but in 1914 during World War I it became known as Petrograd after the “-burg” was deemed too German. When Vladimir Lenin, who led the Bolshevik Revolution in the city, died in 1924, Leningrad was christened. And in 1991, after the Berlin Wall and the USSR fell, it was St. Petersburg once again.

The SKA St. Petersburg hockey club also switched up its nomenclature a few times, but it’s been known as SKA — which stands for Sportivnyi Klub Armii, or Sporting Club of the Army — since 1959. The club was founded in 1946, following World War II — or, as Russians refer to it, the Great Patriotic War. Leningrad was one of the most devastated cities in the country in the early ’40s: Its location near the German front, up by Finland, made it a highly vulnerable target.

From September 1941 until January 1944, the city was under siege,15 with food and supplies cut off by encircling German and Finnish forces. Thousands died of starvation; those who survived ate rats, leather belts, even wallpaper for sustenance. But the city somehow held strong, its fortitude frustrating the German forces, and the grim defense of Leningrad remains an enormous point of pride. The SKA logo is iconic — a red star — and the team’s nickname is the Soldiers. Before each game, the players are shown on the big screen in full gladiator chain mail garb. A garish horse mascot roams the Ice Palace like an equine Carrot Top.

St. Petersburg’s Fifth Avenue equivalent is Nevsky Prospekt, which cuts a wide path through the center of the city and was named after the 13th-century Russian prince revered for his defense of his great nation’s borders. The vibrant strip is home to grand libraries, decadent restaurants — even a sparkling Cartier. And, ever since last December, there’s an official SKA Hockey Club retail store there too.

I went one afternoon for a press conference in which one of the heads of Reebok/CCM Europe led an unveiling of his company’s latest stuff: merchandise designed in collaboration with SKA St. Petersburg. SKA is a little bit like the Toronto Maple Leafs: one of the most recognizable franchises, with a beautiful jersey and located in one of the country’s most important places … and chronically unable to win a championship. Toronto hasn’t won since 1967, and SKA hasn’t won, period.16 Still, it’s one of the most marketable European hockey franchises.

“You can kind of compare it because it’s a big brand,” said Ponikarovsky. “You see how they are running things here, with all the management offices. Everything around the team is really high-level — the traveling is really well done, and all the facilities where we train — and hockey’s pretty big in this city. A lot of people understand it, and we always sell out every game.”

From the games I attended, I noticed Russians tend not to wear team jerseys or other paraphernalia the way North American fans do. (We could learn a lot from their scarf game, though.) This is probably partly because they’re all in big jackets, but also because to them, dressing up like a player is a little bit weird. But the KHL teams — big ones like SKA in particular — are starting to beef up their merchandise offerings, having seen the money they can rake in.

“I’m a Finn who is working now in Sweden and traveling all over the place,” said Jani Heino, the company’s vice-president for European hockey. “And I shouldn’t say the sales will go overnight through the roof, but there is huge interest.”17

The store was closed to the public during the event, and Kovalchuk and two of his teammates — forward Viktor Tikhonov (the grandson of VT the Elder) and goalie Alexander Salak — were on hand to model and chat with the press. A few of the SKA cheerleaders were around, and all of the team employees were clad in their usual business attire: jackets emblazoned with a SKA St. Petersburg crest, which made them resemble a mix of prep-school students and professional soccer coaches. One of those gathered was Roman Rotenberg, the team’s marketing manager and a close friend of Kovalchuk. Rotenberg’s father and uncle (the latter of whom is an old judo buddy of Putin) were two of the investors in Jokerit, the soon-to-be newest KHL team. The other investor, Gennady Timchenko, is one of the richest men in the world and the chairman of the SKA board of directors.

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As he ascended the staircase from the basement, a chipper Kovalchuk grinned and flashed a peace sign like he was some sort of Beatle. At one point, he even interrupted the event’s emcee with an unsolicited joke. (It was in Russian, so I have no idea what he actually said, but everyone laughed too hard like the trusty sportswriters we are.) I’d never seen him act so silly, and I thought about the “Shaybu!” music video and felt a little sad all over again.

As the Russian press descended upon Kovalchuk after the presentation, I chatted with the younger Tikhonov, who was a first-round pick for the Phoenix Coyotes in 2008. He played a good chunk of the season but was later demoted to the AHL, and has played either there or in Russia ever since. Last week he played a part in the KHL’s All-Star Weekend (which included giant tinfoil fish heads and an on-ice cake), and he was recently one of nine KHL players selected for the Russian Olympic team.

“I was kind of right on the edge of playing another year in the AHL or coming here, so once I heard that [Kovalchuk was returning], it definitely edged my decision back here,” said Tikhonov, who from ages 4 to 12 mostly lived in the United States, where his father was a goalie coach. “We played together before the lockout and had a great time, and I learned so much, even from practice. You just learn so much watching him.”

A few days later, the team’s practice included a recognizable skill competition. It’s kind of like keep-away: Players stick handle at center ice, and everyone tries to knock everyone else’s puck out of the faceoff circle while protecting their own. The last man with a puck wins. It was weird to watch professionals play the same games I used to in my own childhood hockey practices, but it was also really fun. Tikhonov was really good at it. Kovalchuk got knocked out before winning in every round, but in fairness, he was also the biggest target.

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With the possible exception of Ovechkin and the captain Datsyuk, few people in Sochi will be under more pressure than Ilya Kovalchuk. This won’t be anything new, per se — at one postgame press conference in St. Petersburg, a Russian reporter asked the coach what had happened to Kovalchuk’s mental toughness and the “fire in his eyes,” and that was after a win. (Some things never change.) When Kovalchuk sided with the Russian Orthodox Church in the controversy over Russia’s much-publicized anti-gay laws it may have endeared him further to some of his comrades, but it also pushed him that much further under the microscope. (“I am Orthodox. I think that says it all,” Datsyuk said, while Ovechkin has mostly avoided comment. “I just support everybody and everybody have own mind,” he told NPR.)

In the few months he’s been playing in St. Petersburg, Kovalchuk has been a face not only of the KHL but of the entire Russian Olympic effort. (When I went to a mall in Magnitogorsk, thousands of miles away, his face was plastered on one of the walls.) SKA had to assign one of its public relations staffers to deal solely with all the requests coming in to speak with or photograph Kovalchuk; many of them originate from the KHL offices or the Russian Hockey Federation. “You can’t say no to Moscow,” one staff member explained.

Kovalchuk can technically return to the NHL at age 35, but he’d need to sit out a year or get the approval of all 30 GMs. It remains to be seen whether he’ll ever want to, but his three kids do go to an international school, and he did joke that speaking English with SKA’s Finnish coach means “I’m still practicing for the future.”

“I still follow New Jersey, and they started playing better, so I’m excited,” Kovalchuk said. “It was a great time there, it just didn’t work out, and I appreciate the way they handled the situation. It says a lot about the organization.”

A diplomatic answer, to be sure. But I think Kovalchuk’s, and the KHL’s, true mentality can be found in the “Shaybu!” pop song.

No need for idols from overseas
To set our sight on
We have our own kings

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Two little princes, neither any older than 5 and both wearing hockey gloves that reached up to their tiny elbows, clung to their famous father’s broad legs as he stood in a hallway outside the SKA locker room after the Neftekhimik win. For the moment, SKA St. Petersburg remained atop the KHL standings. But young Artem and Philip Kovalchuk didn’t seem all too concerned with final scores or leaderboards; they just wanted to hang out with their dad.

“It’s good, because my family is here,” Kovalchuk said, his children chirping “Papa!” down at his calves. “The most important thing is I’m home, and I feel comfortable. I spent 11 years in the NHL, and it was great years. I decided it’s time to change a little bit. And especially here, the fans, they deserve to see some good players. And I’m in my prime, and I’m here.”

Filed Under: Hockey, NHL, New Jersey Devils, Sochi, KHL

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes