The Devils’ Bargain? New Jersey betting its season and its future on number 17

The Devils’ Bargain?

New Jersey went out on a limb – and way out of character – to sign scoring sensation Ilya Kovalchuk, betting its season and its future on number 17

Sarah Kwak, Sports Illustrated


For Ilya Kovalchuk, it was the perfect contract. When Devils president Lou Lamoriello made the star forward a $102 million offer last summer, the first thing that caught the 27-year-old Kovalchuk’s eye was the length of the deal: 17 years. To many in the league, that was a laughable number, one that would have kept kovalchuk playing in New Jersey until he was 44. But Kovalchuk, who has scored a league best 341 goals since entering the NHL in 2001, didn’t find the duration of the contract funny—he had been seeking a long-term deal. Instead he thought it was fate. “That number,” he says, “means a lot to me.”

Kovalchuk proudly wears the number 17 on his sweater, primarily as an homage to his father’s favorite player, Valeri Kharlamov, another left wing and an icon of Soviet hockey who died in a car accident
in 1981 at age 33. In Russia, Kharlamov’s number has the same cultural gravitas that 99 carries in Canada. But its significance to Kovalchuk runs deeper than that. His first two children with his wife, Nicole, were born on Oct. 1 and Feb. 7, respectively. And his life changed forever four years ago with the death of his father, Valeri, the man who shaped him as a hockey player, on July 17. “It’s with me everywhere,” Kovalchuk says of his number.

Lamoriello didn’t know how much the number meant to Kovalchuk. Neither did the NHL. Hours after Kovalchuk signed the contract on July 19, the league voided the agreement on grounds that it circumvented the salary cap by artificially lowering Kovalchuk’s yearly cap hit with “throwaway years” at the end. (The deal would have paid Kovalchuk almost 97% of the $102 million in the first 11 years of the contract.) The dispute dragged on for three weeks. An arbitrator upheld the league’s decision on Aug. 9, and 19 days later Kovalchuk signed a 15-year, $100 million contract with New Jersey that increased his cap number from $6 million (under the voided deal) to $6.67 million. As a result of the ordeal the players’ association agreed to new, stricter regulations governing front-loaded long-term contracts.