Report: 'Putin's inner circle' pressured Ilya Kovalchuk to abandon NHL comeback

Ilya Kovalchuk, once considered a big-name candidate for a return to the NHL, is staying in Russia to play the 2017-18 season with SKA Saint Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League.

And Vladimir Putin's people might have had something to do with it.

Jay Grossman, Kovalchuk's agent, confirmed Tuesday that the former Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils standout and one-time $100 million winger would remain in the KHL until at least 2018, as the New York Post first reported. That decision, per Larry Brooks of the Post, came despite multiple attempts this offseason by Devils general manager Ray Shero to trade Kovalchuk and realize the 34-year-old's apparent goal of returning to the NHL.

Kovalchuk's decision to postpone his NHL comeback by at least one more season, however, might not have come without some prodding from the Russian president's affiliates, according to Sport-Express foreign correspondent Slava Malamud.

"Gold in election year is a huge priority for Russia," Malamud tweeted Tuesday. "Pressure to stay was put on Kovalchuk by Putin's inner circle."

This isn't the first time Putin has been suggested as an influence on Kovalchuk's ties to the KHL.

Six months before Kovalchuk abandoned a 15-year contract with the Devils to retire from the NHL and, days later, sign with SKA Saint Petersburg, the same team he played for during the NHL's shortened 2012-13 season, SNY's Corey Griffin recounted a number of rumors alleging that Putin had offered Kovalchuk money to stay in Russia.

Kovalchuk himself, according to Griffin, even addressed some of the rumors at one time, saying he was sure Putin, an avid hockey fan and player, had "other stuff to take care of."

An earlier 2012 story from the Globe and Mail suggested some of the "other stuff" includes KHL business, identifying the Russian president as an unofficial voice of direction for the SKA Saint Petersburg franchise:

Take SKA Saint Petersburg. There is a direct line from Putin to the team. Putin is the head of government, which controls Gazprom, one of the world biggest energy companies and natural gas exporters, which in turn owns the Saint Petersburg team. If the same ownership thread were replicated in Canada with the Maple Leafs, the Leafs would in effect be a crown corporation.

In any event, Kovalchuk figures to have his clearest path back to the NHL in 2018. As Brooks reported Tuesday, the veteran forward would be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

That is if, of course, his Russian fans aren't too persuasive.

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