It was about 30 minutes to the end of the work day when I flipped over my phone to check for alerts. Then I saw it.
New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk has announced his retirement from the National Hockey League.
This is a joke, right? Someone must have hacked the NHL’s app and sent out a bogus notification. There’s no way that’s supposed to say Ilya Kovalchuk. You know, the Kovalchuk who is 30, the prime of his career. That’s supposed to say Teemu Selänne, heck, even Martin Brodeur, before it gets anywhere near to being Kovalchuk’s time to call it quits.
Then I saw this tweet:
I flipped over to In Lou We Trust to see that most of you had already learned of this news and were already discussing the shock, outrage and anger you were feeling. The headline of Mike’s post said it best: What?
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Not many of you may know this, but it was only relatively recently that I became a fan of the New Jersey Devils. I first caught on to hockey during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and was immediately drawn in by the quick play, high scoring offense and solid goaltending that Team USA showed throughout their run to the Gold Medal game against Canada. While I was bummed by the way that game ended (it probably cemented my then growing dislike of Sidney Crosby), I knew that I was hooked. I wanted more hockey, and the NHL was where I was going to get it. But how?
Let me tell you something about myself: I’m from Iowa.
Iowa. Yeah, that’s right, the Iowa that is nowhere near New Jersey. In case you’re counting, I’m 1,020 miles from Prudential Center. So, yeah: Iowa. Not New Jersey.
You may not be familiar with the Hawkeye State, so I’ll just clue you in right away, there’s no NHL team in the state. Sure, the Blues and the Blackhawks are nearby, but for whatever reason the one team characterized by their sharp red and black jerseys stuck in my mind.
Like a lot of other kids, I was a big fan of video games, especially video games that involved sports. Because as a kid you have to get by on the cheap, free games tend to be how you roll. And you know what’s cheap? Free video game demos. You know what game had a free demo? EA’s NHL ‘04 did.
That game was my stuff right there. I played that demo over and over. Since the game came out the year after the Devils bested the Ducks in the ‘03 Cup finals, those were the two default teams. As luck, fate, or whatever you want to call it, would have it, I repeatedly chose the Devils. They became my team.
Back to 2010: When it came to deciding what team I was going to follow after the Olympics had finished, I naturally chose the Devils. I didn’t follow very closely at first, so I missed all the drama of Lou and the team winning the Kovalchuk sweepstakes. I just started watching games every once and awhile, picking up names and numbers very slowly, but his was one of the first that I began to recognize. As I started following the Devils, he was just just part of the team. He was there from the start.
After a disappointing playoff showing by the team that year, Kovalchuk was eventually signed to a long-term contract during that “Summer of Kovalchuk” Goodbye, Ilya Kovalchuk — summer 2010. Even with as little as I followed the team, I managed to hear about this news, and it excited me. With all the buzz, I learned that he was a pretty good and that he was going to be around for awhile. Excellent. Just the sort of thing that would get a new fan like myself excited.
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Fast-forward to today: Ilya Kovalchuk is no longer a New Jersey Devil, and for me, that’s a really strange thing to write. As you can see, I’ve really never known the Devils without Ilya Kovalchuk. He has been — was — there from just about day one of my fandom. And I suppose that’s what makes his departure so strange for me.
There are other players that I could say this about had they left this summer or last, but I felt some sort of connection to #17, because we entered this franchise right about the same time. He was supposed to be a Devil … forever. That massive 15-year contract was supposed to keep him around until retirement. But as the old saying goes, “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.”
Even during the periods during the last couple years where he has missed games due to injuries, it has been strange to see the team hit the ice without him. Even in those games it felt like something was missing. You don’t need me to tell you how poorly the team performed during one such recent stretch. As it was built then, this team clearly needed him.
But now his absence is the norm. No more of the booming slapshot from the point. No more lightning-quick wrister. No more emphatic windmill celebrations.
* * *
Looking back on it all, we can see now that his time with us was quite strange indeed. While we’re probably angry that he’s gone, we can still be thankful for what he gave us. It’s still worth mentioning the great things that he brought to this franchise.
For instance, he gave me one of my favorite goals against the Rangers (This goal is also great, because it’s one of the few times you actually see Kovalchuck show some emotion.).
He gave me two of my favorite GIFs:
And lastly, he gave me one of my favorite quotes, which you can find in my signature on SB Nation to this day:
"It’s hockey. It’s not chess. We’re allowed to punch each other sometimes. … It’s a man’s game. It’s hockey." -Ilya Kovalchuk, 2012
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At first when I heard the news, I hopped on Twitter and was firing off jokes about the whole situation with everyone else (perhaps that’s the denial phase). Now? I’m just sad and like many of you, a little betrayed. I know I get wrapped up in sports more than I should, and so maybe this type of feeling should be a little silly. After all, there are far greater things out there in the world that one should be sad about.
But I can’t help but feel disappointed that I’ll never get to see Ilya Kovalchuk, live, in a Devils uniform (that’s right: My dirty little secret as a Devils fan, is that I’ve never actually seen the team, live and in-person. That should change this next season. Fingers crossed.). I can’t help but feel disappointed that the one man who was supposed to be around forever is suddenly gone.
Even with all the roster tweaks, adjustments and trades that are characteristic of any professional sports team, he was there over the past few years, the one player we could count on to be a New Jersey Devil from here until … a long time from now. His was a “safe” jersey to buy.
He wasn’t going to get traded. He wasn’t going to get bought-out. He wasn’t going to get buried in the minors. This was a franchise player. One that was supposed to be a rock that we could remember we had when times got rough. You build around this type of player going forward. And then, someday when he is old, he stops playing and you hang his number up high where everyone can see how great he was.
That’s what makes his “retirement” so hard to grasp. Going from established franchise player to KHL defector in a matter of minutes is a status change that’ll take some getting used to I suppose.
Perhaps Ilya did Lou and the Devils a favor. Kovalchuk isn’t getting any younger. His numbers aren’t quite as good as they once were. He’s had injury problems. Perhaps with all that new-found cap space Lou can go out and make one of those “Lamoriello-special” blockbuster deals and bring in a player or two who can help to fill the hole created by Ilya’s departure.
* * *
This whole saga makes you all the more thankful for the guys that stick around. These days there are fewer and fewer Patrik Eliases and Martin Brodeurs. In an age of free agency and lucrative, blockbuster trades and contracts we’ll probably see less and less of this type of player.
We live and breathe this franchise and we expect our players to do the same. But that’s just not how this business works out sometimes. These types of moves serve as a valuable reminder that we’re not a fan of a sports team as much as we are a fan of a business. And all businesses run on money. And money? Well, it does strange things to people.
Money makes people who you thought were loyal think about walking away from what you thought they were loyal to (even Patrik Elias was reportedly close to signing with the Rangers as a free agent back in 2006 before negotiations hit a snag over a no-trade/move clause). But I guess I don’t have to tell you that. We’ve both watched Zach Parise, David Clarkson (also this guy everyone talks about, some character named Scott Gomez?), now Ilya Kovalchuk and others walk away from New Jersey for bigger money. Some times it works, some times it doesn’t. Just remember, to a lot of guys in this business, what they do is just that: business. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, when they move on to greener pastures.
Like all rough breakups (and make no mistake about it, that’s exactly what this is), the main cure for all our sadness and frustration is time. Eventually we’ll move on and come to find someone else, even though part of us will still always remember what we had (Did I really make that comparison? Yes. Yes, I did.). Folks, as much as this situation stinks, we have to take a clue from Lou and do as he has: move on.
Some will say they never really liked him anyway. Some will go down the road of revisionist history. A thought to those who would try that road: don’t. In hockey, as in life, you make calculated gambles and hope that more often than not, those gambles turn out for the better. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you don’t. Even “sure things” like Kovalchuk don’t turn out to be that way some times.
It’s just worth remembering that the guys who stick around are the exception, rather than the rule. The guys who are loyal and stick around, even when the money is better elsewhere, those are the guys whose numbers deserve to be in the rafters.
And with that, I wish Ilya Kovalchuk farewell. As dads throughout history have said at one point or another, “I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.” I’m thankful for the time #17 spent in New Jersey. I just wished it could have ended a little differently.
Here’s to the future, and as always: In Lou We Trust.