NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Superstar forward Ilya Kovalchuk always planned to play for the New Jersey Devils if there was an NHL season.
On his first day back with the Eastern Conference champions, the high-scoring Russian shot down rumors that he either considered playing in Russia after the NHL reached a new collective bargaining agreement or that he was pressured by the Russian government to stay and finish the KHL season.
The 29-year-old even laughed Wednesday after a scrimmage when asked if President Vladimir Putin offered him a lot of money to stay in Russia.
"That's not true," Kovalchuk said. "I'm sure he's got some other stuff to take care of. I had a great time there, we have a good team, but I have a contract here and I'm happy I'm back because I think the lockout's ended and it's great for all hockey, especially for the guys who weren't able to play and waiting and practicing here. I'm happy we're all back and it will be an exciting season."
The lockout-shortened 48-game season will start Saturday. The Devils will play the Islanders in Uniondale, N.Y.
Kovalchuk missed the Devils' first three practices after the new 10-year CBA was finalized, electing to play in the KHL All-Star game along with Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings. He said it was a way to thank the Russian people and the fans who already purchased tickets to the game.
That created a little concern among Devils fans, with many wondering whether Kovalchuk was going to return.
"I don't know where you read all those comments but I have a contract here," he said. "In the KHL, they have a rule that as soon as the lockout ends, we come back, so nobody has a choice."
Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello understood Kovalchuk's motivation and accepted it. He insisted he never had any reason to doubt that Kovalchuk would be back and, after watching him in the scrimmage, felt he was in good shape for the short season.
"There is no question what he means to our team as far as his play," Lamoriello said. "He is a team player, extremely unselfish on the ice and had developed into a complete player."
Kovalchuk returned to the United States about 5 p.m. Tuesday night. He rejoined the team on Wednesday, participating in a scrimmage against the Devils' top minor league team.
It was an impressive return. Kovalchuk, who played 36 games with SKA St. Petersburg during the four-month NHL lockout, scored a goal on a blast from the faceoff circle in the third period and added an assist, finding Travis Zajac with a great cross-ice pass on a power play.
"He looks good," goaltender Martin Brodeur said of Kovalchuk. "Again, we played against an American Hockey League team, here, but he still played really well and skated really well. Kovy is Kovy. It doesn't matter what he does. He'll be the best out there."