Alex Ovechkin stood at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Tuesday, still sweaty from an hour and a half on-ice workout with nearly all of his teammates, relaxed and eager to begin training camp later this week.
He returned to Washington five days ago amid comments out of Russia that the Kontinental Hockey League would attempt to lure him home, but Tuesday the Washington Capitals captain put an end to the speculation about whether he would entertain the idea of leaving the NHL.
“I’m here,” Ovechkin said. “I have a contract.”
Ovechkin, who turns 28 on Sept. 17, has eight years and $79 million remaining on his contract with Washington. Still, that didn’t stop Dynamo Moscow general director Andrey Safranov from saying he would try to sign Ovechkin and bring him to the KHL, suggesting the star winger would like to return to Russia.
“It was very enjoyable to hear president of Dynamo and GM wants me to sign. Be honest with you, I love Dynamo — it’s my first team, and I play [there] when it was lockout,” Ovechkin said. “But I have a contract. I have to play here, and I respect my teammates, my fans and all that kind of stuff. That’s about it.”
Eastern Europe’s KHL was created in 2008 and hasn’t been considered a serious rival to the NHL as the top hockey league in the world. But in mid-July, when Ilya Kovalchuk decided to walk away from the New Jersey Devils — and the 12 years and $77 million remaining on his NHL contract — so he could go to his native Russia and play for SKA St. Petersburg, it marked the first time a prominent player opted for the KHL.
It also offered encouragement to KHL officials, who are eager to grow their league and hopeful the move will bring other prominent Russian stars such as Ovechkin, Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin home. Datsyuk and Malkin had been rumored to be considering offers, but both signed multiyear extensions with their NHL teams this offseason.
Capitals Coach Adam Oates worked with Kovalchuk during his two years as an assistant coach in New Jersey and said he had seen no indication the winger would leave the NHL. That decision, Oates knows, may make heading back to a home country seem more plausible for other players, so the possibility can’t be ignored as the NHL moves forward.
“With what Kovy did, it’s caused a different precedent,” Oates said last week. “I’m sure it’s something that will be addressed, but for us, I don’t want it to be a distraction, that’s all.”
Kovalchuk’s situation featured a unique set of circumstances, though, as the Devils didn’t protest his departure. Teams have the right to suspend players without pay and toll their contracts in order to prevent them from playing in another league.
While Ovechkin expressed his intent to remain in Washington, he didn’t offer any judgment on Kovalchuk’s decision.
“He decided to go back, and I respect his decision,” Ovechkin said. “You can say bad things about him or, if you want to, say good things about him. All the pressure on him was because he’s Russian, that’s why. Some American guys go to KHL, and after two months they say, ‘Okay, I want to cancel my contract and go back.’ Why nobody put pressure on them? It’s different situation. Of course he’s a bigger player than somebody else and somebody was not happy about it, but it’s life.”
Ovechkin has long been one of the most celebrated figures in Russian hockey, and this year he will be the face of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He has been invited to become the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch after it is lit in Greece on Sept. 29, just two days before the Capitals’ season opener.
But before Ovechkin confirms his participation, the Russian Hockey Federation must ensure it can secure travel arrangements that won’t interfere with any NHL commitments.
“That’s the most important thing,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t want to miss the games or something like that.”
It’s an example of how Ovechkin has managed to mesh both of his worlds, representing Russia while making the Capitals a priority.
General Manager George McPhee recently reiterated his confidence in Ovechkin’s desire to compete for the Stanley Cup and said he doesn’t question the winger’s drive.
“From day one, this kid’s always wanted to play over here,” McPhee said last week. “And I don’t imagine he’s going to want to go back any time soon.”