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Kovalchuk happy to be a 'Devil for life'

by Dan Rosen
NEWARK, N.J. -- After three weeks of surveying the scene, scoping out his options and visiting with a potential employer, Ilya Kovalchuk sat down with his family on Saturday and together they decided to call New Jersey home for what could be the rest of their lives.

Kovalchuk, who has been spending his offseason in South Florida, went to his local post office Saturday afternoon to receive the fax, sign his historic contract and send it in making him "a Devil for life."

With that, the curtain came down on one of the longest summer dramas in NHL history.

The Russian sniper, who has been called the best unrestricted free agent in the post-work stoppage era, signed a record 17-year contract worth a reported $102 million to remain in New Jersey.

He was re-introduced to the hockey world as a member of the Devils on Tuesday in a news conference attended by well over 50 media people, several teammates, including Zach Parise, Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias and captain Jamie Langenbrunner -- as well as roughly 100 fans who were welcomed inside the Verizon Tower at Prudential Center to see it for themselves.

Kovalchuk scored 27 points for the Devils over the final 27 games of the 2009-10 regular season after being traded to New Jersey from Atlanta, where he spent the first seven-plus seasons of his career and was a two-time 50-goal scorer.

"Really tough," Kovalchuk said when asked how difficult it had been for him since he became an unrestricted free agent at noon ET on July 1. "It was long, and every day you have some emotions going through your wife and your kids when it's unknown where you're going to be. You see the guys sign and stuff, so it was tough, but I want to say a big thanks to Lou (Lamoriello) for the way he handled the situation. He gave me all the space and all the time and I really appreciate it."

Lamoriello worked with Kovalchuk's agent, Jay Grossman, to hammer out the longest contract in NHL history. Kovalchuk's deal gives the Devils a cap hit of $6 million per season, but it puts them over the $59.4 million salary cap for 2010-11. Teams can remain over the cap by 10 percent until the season starts.

The 17-year term of the contract just happens to match Kovalchuk's jersey number. He said it was just a coincidence.

"I thought that it was an open discussion (with Grossman)," Lamoriello said. "I don't think there was any hidden agenda. There was honesty coming from his end and I know it was coming from our end. When you have those qualities happening you allow the end result to take care of itself. Whatever decision was made we would never look back because we did what was right. Jay would not have looked back because it comes down to Ilya's decision on whatever the outcome was to be."

Even though the drama has played out for all of July -- Kovalchuk's intent was to take his time before making what he calls "the biggest decision of my life."

He referenced the NBA, which gives players a week of courtship before they can officially sign a contract on July 8.

"Some guys sign right on July 1, 10 to 15 minutes into July 1, and they don't really know where they're going. Especially if you have family it's very difficult," Kovalchuk said. "In the NBA as an example, they have seven days to go visit the cities where they're going to spend the rest of their life or the next couple of years, and that's what I did too."

Kovalchuk wouldn't confirm his other suitors, but one was definitely the Los Angeles Kings. He went on what amounted to a college-style recruiting visit to L.A. last week with his wife, Nicole, who had never been there before.

"Nobody put any timing on me, so I decided to take my time, to go there (to L.A.), met the general manager, a couple of guys on the team and that only helped me to make my decision," he said. "I don't know what I learned, but that's how it should be. When you agree to stay with a team for the rest of your career, you want to be 110 percent sure you're making the right decision."

Kovalchuk made his decision upon returning from Los Angeles, and he firmly believes he will play out his entire 17-year contract even if, as he said, it means upping his training regimen in say 10 years, when he'll be 37 years old.

"It wasn't really about money," he said. "It was more where are you going to spend the rest of your hockey life, but after that, when you spend that kind of time in a city you may stay there for the rest of your life. That was the main concern for us, what kind of area is here and what kind of schools are here. I have three kids. It's really all about the family."

He said these last three weeks were difficult -- but not necessarily nerve-wracking.

"I'm not the guy who reads the internet and articles about himself. I was in Florida, it's a pretty good place to be," Kovalchuk said. "I played a lot of tennis and spent a lot of time with my kids. I told Jay when you got something serious to talk about then call me, but don't just call about the rumors. We had a couple of conversations, but really long ones and good ones."

Kovalchuk eventually came to his decision because he wants to win multiple championships, and he believes he can do that with the Devils. He has been impressed with the changes Lamoriello has made this summer.

John MacLean, the franchise's leader in goals, is the new coach.

"We all know he knows how to score the goals," Kovalchuk said of MacLean, who scored 347 for the Devils from 1984-98.
"Some guys sign right on July 1, 10 to 15 minutes into July 1, and they don't really know where they're going. Especially if you have family it's very difficult.  In the NBA as an example, they have seven days to go visit the cities where they're going to spend the rest of their life or the next couple of years, and that's what I did too." -- Ilya Kovalchuk
Anton Volchenkov, a Russian buddy of Kovalchuk's, is the new face of the defense along with Henrik Tallinder. Paul Martin signed with Pittsburgh.

"With Volchy, he may sometimes have more saves than Marty the way he plays the game. He blocks all the shots," Kovalchuk said. "He reminds me a little of Scotty (Stevens), so I think he can play the same style of hockey and that's maybe what Jersey was missing."

Jason Arnott, who scored the winning goal in the 2000 Stanley Cup Final for the Devils, is back. Perhaps most importantly to Kovalchuk, Johan Hedberg, one of his best friends from his days in Atlanta, is the new backup to Brodeur.

"Everybody loves him in Atlanta and he's really close to me, so that's very important," Kovalchuk said of Hedberg. "I think he's a great piece for our team."

Kovalchuk is now the centerpiece -- for 102 million reasons.

"I worked here before and I knew how it felt to be in this organization. It was one of the main reasons I came back here," Kovalchuk said. "I'm all set now and I'm going back to Russia at the end of this month to start training with my trainer and just prepare myself like I always do."

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