Ilya Kovalchuk announced his retirement* suddenly on Thursday, bringing an end to the storied career** of the all-time top scorer in Winnipeg Jets franchise*** history and paving the way for a return to his native Russia.
*"from the NHL"
**in the NHL
***the second one. The one that moved from Atlanta. Because the first one is in Phoenix
and didn't relocate in time to move back to Manitoba before the Atlanta imbeciles' court case was settled, which really screws with our record-keeping and our conceptual framework of what laundry goes with what historical narrative.
Kovalchuk scored 615 points in 594 games for the franchise that was then called the Atlanta Thrashers, 199 more points than second-highest Vyacheslav Kozlov, who played 18 NHL seasons before returning to Russia himself.
Kovalchuk never actually made the departure to Winnipeg, however, getting out of a disastrous ownership situation before the franchise's move north but not before leading the franchise on a drawn-out "will he or won't he sign?' drama until they sold him at the 2010 trade deadline to the New Jersey Devils for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier and draft picks that were later shipped to Chicago to acquire Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel and Akim Aliu (gesundheit).
Kovalchuk's Faustian impact on his teams did not end with the would-be Jets, however. The whole signing drama started with his demands for a lifetime contract, something he would get from the Devils in a CBA-mocking 17-year deal -- He wears #17! Get it? No no, he'll TOTALLY stick with the Devils until age 44... -- that cost the Devils a first-round pick, a fine, and much shaming.
When the dust settled, the Devils and Kovalchuk agreed on a revised 15-year deal (because he'll TOTALLY stick with the Devils until age 42!) that still had creative accounting but not enough to draw sanction from the NHL.
The Devils rearranged their team around Kovalchuk, to the point that they lost franchise player Zach Parise in free agency one year before Kovalchuk was struck with retirement-inducing homesickness. However, the two at least made one Stanley Cup final together before another NHL lockout had Kovalchuk dreaming of returning to Russia and bailing on the lifetime contract he signed because he totally intended to play in New Jersey in his 40s.
But hey, Kovalchuk meant them no harm:
"Though I decided to return this past season, [general manager] Lou [Lamoriello] was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me," Kovalchuk said in a statement. "The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, but of course not so much respect that I'll actually play out the handsome contract I conspired with them to create, LOL. Let's be real here."
*Note: I may have fabricated the end of that quote there.
Thankfully for the Devils under the new CBA that frowns upon the deceptions signed under the old CBA, Kovalchuk is retiring now rather than waiting for another four or five years. Due to the "cap savings recapture" clause, the Devils would have paid handsomely in future cap hits had Kovalchuk collected some $33 to $55 million over the next three to five years while carrying a cap hit of just $6.6 million.
Thus ends the NHL career of Ilya Kovalchuk, for now still technically the best player in Winnipeg Jets II franchise history, and a fitting symbol of the potential and collapse of the Atlanta Thrashers who made this tortured joke possible.