Oates: Losing Kovalchuk is like losing LeBron

Oates: Losing Kovalchuk is like losing LeBron
July 11, 2013, 6:30 pm
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Kovalchuk moves to Russia, any fear of Ovi too?

Before taking the job as head coach of the Washington Capitals, Adam Oates spent two years as an assistant with the New Jersey Devils and helped convince Ilya Kovalchuk to switch from his natural left wing to right wing.

Kovalchuk responded with one of the best overall seasons of his career, helping the Devils get to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.

On Thursday, Kovalchuk shocked the hockey world by retiring from the NHL and walking away from the 12 years and $77 million the Devils owed him.

“It’s sad,” Oates said in a conference call with a small group of reporters. “He’s a marquee name in our league and a great player.

“I had a chance to coach him a couple years and I liked him. It’s sad for the league. He’s one of our good players and we’re going to miss him. He’s only 30 years old.”

Oates said he did not notice in Kovalchuk a desire to return to Russia in his last season in New Jersey in 2011-12.

“Of course, last year they had a few more struggles,” Oates added, referring to the Devils missing the playoffs.

After the NHL gave its blessing on Kovalchuk’s retirement papers, reports emerged that he will resume his playing career for SKA of the KHL, the team for which he played during the lockout.

“It’s still tough, because you build your team around a player and when that player leaves … it’s not a precedent we want to start, for sure,” Oates said. “It will make it difficult for many more Europeans to come over because general managers won’t trust them.”

Oates remembers the days early in his career when European players were ostracized by their own teammates because they took NHL jobs away from North Americans.

“If you go back to the very first guys who came over, they were black balled in effect, because they were taking jobs here,” he said. “It’s like a reversal of fortune.

“It’s a unique thing. There are very talented hockey players in other parts of the world and they should be in this league, but there are extenuating circumstances for certain situations.

“It’s a tough thing. He’s got a wife, he’s got kids. If he wants to go back to Russia it’s a little unfair to the Devils. If that happened to other teams it would be devastating at times.”

Like if Alex Ovechkin, who has eight years and $79 million left on his contract, decided to walk away from the Capitals.

Oates says he’s more disappointed for the fans of New Jersey and for Kovalchuk’s teammates.

“He’s a superstar,” he said. “It’s kind of like when LeBron [James] left Cleveland. It reversed two franchises.

“It’s a different sport and [Devils general manager] Lou Lamoriello is the type of man who has been through adversity before. He’ll get through it, no question. But still. Arguably their best player is missing right now.”