No matter when the NHL and NHLPA bring the current lockout to a merciful end, there has been one question on the mind of Capitals fans since it began - will Alex Ovechkin return to North America when that hoped-for day comes?
Emphatically, the answer is: Yes, yes, yes.
Since the lockout began and the Capitals star signed a temporary agreement with his old Kontinental Hockey League club, Moscow Dynamo, there have been rumblings from both the Washington star and Dynamo management that Ovechkin might opt to stay in his native land rather than return to his 13-year contract with the Caps, which still has 9 years and $88 million remaining.
"As to the future, it will depend on what kind of conditions there will be in the NHL with the new CBA," Ovechkin told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti back in September. "If our contracts get slashed, I will have to think whether to return there or not. I won't rule out staying in the KHL, even past this season."
"Is there the desire to retain Alexander Ovechkin at Dynamo after the NHL lockout? Dynamo has such thoughts," Dynamo president Arkady Rotenberg told Russia's R-Sport this month. "So we are looking in that direction, we'll see whether it'll work out."
It's important, in light of these quotes, to remember that Ovechkin has been one of the NHL's most outspoken critics during the lockout - even Tweeting that the owners were 'clowns.' It's also important to remember the man who signs his regular paycheck, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, happens to be one of the four owners on the NHL's negotiating committee.
For Dynamo management, who have seen an uptick in interest surrounding Ovechkin and his Washington teammate, Nicklas Backstrom, it makes sense to say that you will do all you can to keep the star. But this is not unlike a team talking big in free agency on a player they know they have little hope of attracting. It just creates excitement for the time being.
Despite the rhetoric, the odds of Ovechkin remaining with the KHL are miniscule thanks to the current transfer rules that govern NHL and KHL teams under the umbrella of the International Ice Hockey Federation.
The current transfer agreement between the NHL and the IIHF, which covers teams in the KHL, guarantees that players with valid NHL contracts cannot play in another league without the permission of that club, and vice versa. While the IIHF is making an exception during the current lockout, when players cannot find employment with the NHL's 30 clubs, once the lockout officially ends, the window of playing overseas closes for all players under league contracts.
Therefore, whenever the lockout ends, Moscow Dynamo will be obligated under the IIHF transfer rules to have Ovechkin return to Washington, with whom he has a valid contract through the 2020-21 season.
And if Ovechkin doesn't return, the consequences for the KHL and Russian hockey would, in short, be quite dire.
It's important to note that the next Winter Olympics are slated to be held in Sochi, Russia in 2014. The Ice Hockey Federation of Russia wants badly to have the NHL players come over and compete, especially in the wake of Russia's disappointing showing in Vancouver in 2010. Being eliminated - and embarassed - in the quarterfinals by the host Canadians left a very bitter taste with the Russian hockey federation, and they want a chance to try and earn a measure of revenge on their home soil.
One of the bargaining chips in the latest CBA talks is the NHL agreeing to shut down for two to three weeks in February and allowing their top talent to participate in the Olympic tournament. With NHL broadcast partner NBC televising the Games in America, it seems likely that owners will sign off on the provision to have the league's top talent go to Sochi for what might be the final Olympics with NHL participation.
However, should the KHL decide to ignore a valid NHL contract and poach Ovechkin - or any other player under NHL contract, for that matter - the odds of the NHL allowing its players to go plummets.
Capitals fans will remember that this isn't the first time they've seen a player go home overseas and had trouble getting him back. Alexander Semin refused to report to the Portland Pirates during the 2004-05 lockout, and then elected to stay in Russia for two seasons before settling his dispute and returning to the NHL in 2006.
But while Semin stayed over - but eventually came back to the team that held his NHL rights - there also was not a valid transfer agreement at the time between what was then called the Russian Superleague and the NHL.
With a valid transfer agreement in place this time, the fallout from Ovechkin staying in the KHL would be more than any involved in Russian hockey would want. Ovechkin staying would likely cost the Russians NHL players in the country's first-ever Winter Olympics. Furthermore, who's to say NHL teams would not return the favor and try to poach players under valid KHL contracts in retaliation? That would simply create chaos in international hockey. And that's not to mention sanctions that the IIHF would likely impose on Russian international teams over the dispute.
The only viable way that Ovechkin would be allowed to remain with the KHL is with the Capitals' blessing, and given the amount of money that the star helps to generate for the Washington franchise, that isn't a realistic scenario.
So, those fans who wonder if we have seen the last of Ovechkin in the Capitals' red-white-and-blue needn't worry. Whenever the lockout ends, the Russian star will be back in the fold.