NEWARK, N.J. -- Ilya Kovalchuk officially and finally ended the mini-drama about his return to North America on Wednesday when he stepped back on the ice with the New Jersey Devils.
"The NHL is the best league in the world and I'm excited," Kovalchuk said.
Kovalchuk, who spent the lockout playing in his native Russia for SKA St. Petersburg, missed the first three days of NHL training camp in order to play in the KHL All-Star Game on Sunday and travel back to New Jersey with his family.
Initially, there were reports that despite an agreement to honor contracts between the NHL and the KHL, Kovalchuk was thinking about staying in the KHL for the duration of the season. Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello squashed those rumors Sunday when he gave the details of Kovalchuk's return to New Jersey.
However, nothing was certain until Kovalchuk arrived at Prudential Center for the Devils' scrimmage against their AHL affiliate from Albany.
"I had a great time there, we had a good team, but I have a contract here and I'm happy I'm back here because I think the lockout ending is great for all of hockey, especially for the guys who weren't able to play and were waiting and practicing here," said Kovalchuk, who famously signed a 15-year, $100 million contract in the summer of 2010. "I'm happy we're all back and it'll be an exciting season."
Kovalchuk had 42 points in 36 games as the captain for St. Petersburg. He also was named a captain for the KHL's West Division All-Star Team, and said he felt he owed it to the fans to stay in Russia and play in that game Sunday, the day NHL training camps opened.
After speaking with Kovalchuk on several occasions, Lamoriello said he understood Kovalchuk's desire to stay in Russia to play in the All-Star Game and, though he couldn't grant him official permission due to potential injury, he was OK with it.
"He's one of the national heroes right now in hockey over there, they have an All-Star Game, they appoint him captain in the division and fans are expecting that," Lamoriello said. "So, yes, sympathetic would be a good word, but understanding more than sympathetic. We spoke on several occasions and it was important to him. End of case. It's no issue here and we go forward. After today hopefully there are no more questions."
Kovalchuk, who said he spoke "straight" with Lamoriello about his desire to play in the All-Star Game, appreciated the fact the Devils did not attempt to stop him from playing, which was his way of thanking the Russian fans for the way they treated him during the lockout.
"The president of the [KHL], he asked us to play. We thought that would be important to the fans," Kovalchuk said. "They already bought the tickets to see us play there. We just decided to stay and it's good that Lou and the ownership, they understand me and they accept it. I really appreciate it."
With Kovalchuk back, the Devils are almost whole heading into their season opener Saturday against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum.
Adam Henrique is still out, rehabbing his surgically repaired thumb. Lamoriello said Henrique was given the clearance to start skating Wednesday but is still a couple of weeks away from playing.
On the other hand, Kovalchuk has been playing regularly for the past three months, so he returned to New Jersey in game shape and, despite his jet lag due to the nine-hour time difference between New Jersey and St. Petersburg, was at times a step ahead of the other players during the scrimmage Wednesday.
He had a goal and an assist in a 4-1 victory.
"He looked good. That's what we expected," goalie Martin Brodeur said. "With him playing overseas for that many games, it's probably like a walk in the park for him to play, especially when we played against an American Hockey League team too. But he looked good. He looked like he was really happy to be here. That's all good for us."