'This Decision Was Something I Have Thought About For A Long Time'

NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Who saw this one coming?

Superstar forward Ilya Kovalchuk stunned the New Jersey Devils and the sports world Thursday, retiring from the NHL to return to his native Russia.

In leaving, Kovalchuk walked away from $77 million left on the 15-year contract that he signed with New Jersey in 2010, including guaranteed annual salaries of at least $11 million over the next four seasons.

The Devils announced the stunning news Thursday afternoon in a statement, saying that the 30-year-old had alerted general manager and president Lou Lamoriello earlier this year that he wanted to return home with his family after 11 seasons in the NHL.

“Gentlemen, this wasn’t a decision made by the New Jersey Devils,” a testy Lamoriello said at the end of a conference call held less than an hour after the retirement was announced.

Lamoriello refused to disclose anything about his conversations with Kovalchuk relating to the retirement. He also did not clarify whether the Russian planned to play in the KHL in Russia next season or whether the Devils would retain his rights if he reconsidered his retirement, deferring to the NHL. He said Kovalchuk’s decision was not related to anything physical.

Kovalchuk had back problems in 2011-12 and missed 11 games this past season with a shoulder injury.

“This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia,” Kovalchuk, the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft, said in a statement. “Though I decided to return this past season, Lou was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me. The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils.”

Kovalchuk was to earn $11.3 million in each of the next two seasons and $56 million over the next five years. Lamoriello said Kovalchuk didn’t receive a signing bonus, so the team didn’t have to seek recovering any money.

The defection means the Devils have lost their top two players after each of the past two seasons. Zach Parise signed as a free agent with Minnesota after their 2012 run to the Stanley Cup finals, and Kovalchuk is leaving the team without a superstar because Martin Brodeur can no longer fill that category in his 40s.

Lamoriello would not say whether the retirement affected his plans in the recent free agency period. The Devils lost forward David Clarkson, a 30-goal scorer a year ago, to Toronto in free agency.

The Devils added some scoring in the recent free agency period, re-signing Patrik Elias while adding Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder as free agents.

“We’re going to put the best possible team we can on the ice,” Lamoriello insisted, saying his main focus will be moving forward.

Lamoriello would not say whether the retirement soured him on Kovalchuk’s four seasons with the club, but the impression was clearly that he was miffed.

Acquired in a trade with Atlanta, Kovalchuk spent his last four seasons with the Devils. His best season with the Devils was 2011-12 when he had 37 goals. He had 11 goals in 37 games this season.

Overall, Kovalchuk scored 417 goals and 399 assists in 816 NHL games. His best NHL seasons were in 2005-06 and 2007-08 when he scored a career-high 52 goals. He had three other 40-goal seasons

Kovalchuk represented Russia at three Olympic Winter Games, nine World Championships, one World Junior Championship and the 2004 World Cup. He played in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg during the recent lockout and was selected their captain. He participated in the KHL All-Star game before returning to New Jersey for the lockout-shortened 48-game regular season, a campaign where the Devils missed the playoffs.

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