The NHL lockout is over, and most of the players (not Lubomir Visnovsky, though) who kept their games sharp in the KHL have returned to work in the United States. Washington's Alex Ovechkin is back in the States, saying funny things and wearing funny t-shirts. Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin has abandoned Magnitogorsk, a city which is, you will recall, the world's worst place.
But two other Russian superstars—the Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk and the Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk—remain in Russia, according to Slava Malamud of Sport-Express. Kovalchuk even dressed in a game today for SKA St. Petersburg. You might think that doesn't mean much: They're just like college freshmen who linger at home late into winter break because they can't pass up mother's borscht. And besides, the CBA isn't even finalized.
But a series of tweets from the New York Post's Larry Brooks suggests that there's more to it. According to Brooks, Malkin, Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, and Datsyuk were prepared to announce on Friday that they would remain in the KHL regardless of how the latest CBA discussions concluded. Brooks reported that Vladimir Putin himself guaranteed the four players $30 million each to stay. The NHLPA talked the big four out of that deal—presumably by guaranteeing them that labor peace would soon arrive, which it did—but the KHL hasn't quit yet. Malamud reported today that the energy kingpins who own Kovalchuk and Datsyuk's teams are presently preparing more tempting offers to keep them around. Maybe they'll get their own mines and refineries, or something?
The KHL has publicly assured the NHL that it will comply with their pre-lockout agreement, which forbids players with existing NHL contracts to play in the KHL so long as the NHL is playing games. It's hard to tell whether either league really believes that assurance. But so long as the battle remains a geopolitical one, fought by powerful commissioners and Russian politicians, the NHL retains the biggest bargaining chip: If the league's at odds with a state-sponsored KHL, there's no way NHL players will get time off for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Plus ça change...