LOS ANGELES — Star forward Ilya Kovalchuk’s return to the National Hockey League officially began on July 1, when he signed a three-year deal worth $6.25 million per season with the Los Angeles Kings. But his introduction to the local media here in Southern California got off to an inauspicious start.
Earlier in the week, the Kings invited the local media to an informal press gathering to meet and speak with the 35-year-old veteran of more than twelve NHL seasons in which he was a perennial 30-goal scorer—he reached the 52-goal mark twice in his NHL career and won the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the NHL’s leading goal scorer in the 2003-04 season with 41 goals. But his travel plans changed and he was unable to fly to Los Angeles for the gathering, which had been scheduled for noon today. Instead, a media conference call was scheduled in its place.
Once the time for the call came around, 22 media members were on the line. But Kovalchuk was a no-show. Media were then told to call back 30 minutes later. But even then, that call started, but still, no Kovalchuk.
Fortunately, the native of Tver, Russia, who has played the last five-plus seasons with St. Petersburg of the KHL, was only about five minutes late.
He explained that he was returning to the NHL because he wants to finish his career with a team that he believes has a chance to win the Stanley Cup.
“I wanted to go to a place where I have a chance to win the Cup and the Kings are definitely one of the teams,” he said. “When I met with the [general manager] and the President, with [Rob Blake and Luc Robitaille, respectively], we had a great meeting and they showed me how they’re going to use me as a player and I’ll try to bring all [the] best of what I’ve got.”
“When I met with Luc and Rob…they said that they were really interested in me and that was the most important because before I came here, I wanted to go to the team that really sees me where I can be productive,” he added. “I think that’s a good combination and now, from my standpoint, I need to prepare myself as much as I can for training camp and be ready for the season.”
Several teams were hoping to sign Kovalchuk for his return stint in the NHL. But even though he chose the Kings, he indicated that there was no frontrunner.
“I didn’t pay close attention to the LA Kings when I was there because I didn’t know where I was going to play,” he noted. “But I did pay attention to the NHL because I decided after the Olympics that I’m going to come back and play here. It’s a great league. Like I said, all the best players are playing here, and it’s another challenge for me to come back and be who I am and play at the level where I can play.”
“When I was making my decision, it was all about hockey because I have three or four years left in my tank where I can really play at a high level,” he added. “L.A. has a great group of guys—great goaltending, great defense, and they have one of the best centers in the league. I never had a chance to play with those kinds of guys, so it’s really exciting for me. It’s great. That’s the reason why I went, because they have guys who know how to win and they’re really hungry to win.”
“I am very excited, me and my family, that we signed with L.A. and I’m really looking forward to being in the NHL and especially playing for the Kings.”
Kovalchuk, who won the Gold Medal in Men’s Hockey with the Olympic Athletes from Russia during the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, indicated that playing in the KHL was good for him.
“It’s a great league,” he noted. “I think it’s the second-best league in the world, a lot of great young Russian players there. You can see how many guys from the KHL [have done well in the NHL] the last few years. We won two Cups there and especially, I was preparing myself for the Olympic Games. Last year, when I knew the NHL [would not] allow NHL guys to go to the Olympics, I decided to stay for one more year.”
Looking ahead, Kovalchuk doesn’t really know exactly what lies ahead for him, in terms of expectations from his new head coach, John Stevens.
“I didn’t meet him yet, in person,” he said. “But we talked on the phone. We had a good talk and he welcomed me to the team. But we didn’t talk about my role on the team. I think we’ll discuss everything when we meet in person.”
Kovalchuk has also communicated with several of his new teammates.
“Yeah, actually [center and team captain Anze Kopitar] texted me right after I signed, so it was great,” he noted. “A lot of guys texted me and asked me if I needed any help to move in…and welcomed me to the team, so it was nice.”
“At training camp, we’ll get to know each other more,” he added. “We’ll talk about the season and what we’re going to do. But for me, like I said, I just need to be in the best shape possible to be ready, because it will be the coach’s decision who I am going to play with.”
Perhaps the biggest question mark for Kovalchuk and the Kings is whether or not, at 35-years-of age, he can adjust to the considerably quicker, faster NHL.
“We’ll see,” he said. “I was following the NHL last year, actually more than four years ago, when I was there. But I saw the playoffs this past [season]. It’s good. Obviously, it’s changed. The time’s running, and I’m not getting younger.”
“I can’t see the future,” he added. “I will do my best. The last few years, I was still in the same caliber like I was, so I feel comfortable. Especially when you play with the guys like Kopitar, [Drew] Doughty, [Jeff] Carter, [Dustin] Brown, those guys, they make it even easier to get the points and the goals. We just need to work really hard and be a good team. It doesn’t matter really who’s going to score. We just need to get to our goals. [But] I can’t produce anything right now. I can’t predict the future, so we’ll see. I feel good. I’m a young 35…We have a great group of guys with a great veteran core with Kopi, with Drew, with [Jonathan] Quick, Brown and all those guys. They know how to win, so I will try my best to help them do the same.”
“I did talk to [Alexander Ovechkin], I did talk to [Alexander Radulov], I did talk to [Evgeni Malkin], and I think I’ll be OK.”
As the media conference call wound down, a reporter, noting that he had seen several videos Kovalchuk has posted of him working out, asked about how he feels at 35 years old.
“I am 35,” he replied. “A young 35, like I said. But it’s good that you follow my Instagram.”
LEAD PHOTO: Gold medal winner Ilya Kovalchuk, #71 of Olympic Athletes from Russia, celebrates after scoring a goal in overtime to defeat Germany. 4-3. during the Men’s Gold Medal Game on day 16 of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. Embedded photo: Roland Martinez/Getty Images.
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