NEW YORK -- Ilya Kovalchuk expects the boobirds to be out in full force on Tuesday, when the Los Angeles Kings forward plays his first game at Prudential Center since leaving the New Jersey Devils to return home to Russia following the 2012-13 season (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, MSG+, FS-W, NHL.TV).
He insists he's ready for it.
"I am pretty sure there will be a lot of booing," Kovalchuk said following the Kings' 4-3 overtime win against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Monday, "but I love that, so it's all good."
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Kovalchuk signed a 15-year, $100 million contract with the Devils on Sept. 4, 2010. But he voluntarily retired from the NHL on July 11, 2013, citing a desire to move back to Russia despite having 12 years and $77 million remaining on his deal.
Four days later, Kovalchuk signed a four-year contract with SKA St. Petersburg in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, the same team he played for during the work stoppage that delayed the start of the NHL's 2012-13 season.
Kovalchuk said he has since had several conversations with Lou Lamoriello, who at the time was Devils general manager and is currently GM of the New York Islanders. Kovalchuk said there has been no animosity between them; in fact, he said he spoke with Lamoriello as recently as last week, when the Kings played the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum.
"I saw him in Moscow a few times too when I played [in Russia]," Kovalchuk said. "We're always good. I respect the guy and he's a true professional. He will do anything for you when you're on his side. It's all great.
"He did exactly what I asked him," Kovalchuk added. "He did everything very professional."
Kovalchuk said he thinks it was a win-win for both sides in the end; the Devils were able to get out of his contract, and he was able to play in Russia for five seasons before signing a three-year, $18.75 million contract with the Kings on July 1, 2018.
New Jersey, though, missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in five straight seasons before qualifying last season. The Devils (20-24-7) are currently in last place in the Metropolitan Division, five points behind the Rangers.
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Kovalchuk even liked the area so much that he chose to build a house in Alpine, New Jersey, which is 25 miles from Newark. He said construction on his home recently finished, and he stopped by on the Kings' off day Sunday. It was his first time in New Jersey since he decided to leave the Devils.
Now he's looking forward to his first time back at Prudential Center, where he said he has many great memories, mostly from the Devils' run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, which New Jersey lost to Los Angeles in six games. Kovalchuk had 19 points (eight goals, 11 assists) in 23 games that postseason.
The two remaining players from that run in New Jersey are center Travis Zajac and defenseman Andy Greene.
"Only two guys left, but Marty now, he's almost running the club, so it's good," Kovalchuk joked about Martin Brodeur, the Hall of Fame goalie who works for the Devils as executive vice president of business development.
Brodeur's No. 30 and Patrik Elias' No. 26 have since been retired by the Devils.
"We had a great team," Kovalchuk said. "We went to the Final. It was a lot of fun. I played with some great players there, a few Hall of Famers and some guys have their jersey retired. It was a great experience for sure."
Kovalchuk hopes to turn his return experience into a great one for him and the Kings, especially if it means fighting through all the booing he expects to hear.
"I was booed a few times in Russia when I played back home against my first team, Spartak," said Kovalchuk, who had two assists Monday and has 25 points (10 goals, 15 assists) in 42 games this season. "I did well. I scored two goals, so we'll see [Tuesday]."