Wednesday, February 13, 2008

From Russia With Verve: It's Ovechkin

Jamie Rose for The New York Times. The Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin provides tickets to children from the Most Valuable Kids charity, then signs autographs for them after games.

The New York Times
Published: February 13, 2008

When Bruce Boudreau first met his players as the Washington Capitals’ coach, he had no idea what to expect. His career, spent largely bouncing around minor leagues, had not taken him in front of the kind of players now judging his every move.

So Boudreau was amazed when one of the first players to shake his hand in the locker room that November day was Alex Ovechkin, the team’s outlandishly talented 22-year-old left wing.
“He walked up to me and said, ‘What do we do, Coach?’ ” Boudreau said. “That’s the way he is. He follows every direction. He does things superstars just don’t do.”

Ovechkin’s ability to astound began in the first game of his N.H.L. career, when he lived up to every bit of his hype by scoring two goals, and has barely let up. In his third season, Ovechkin leads the league in goals (47) and points (76). He has a handful of the most spectacular plays of the season and negotiated his own contract extension worth an eye-popping $124 million over 13 years.

His on-ice flair is so flamboyant that he practically commands a channel on YouTube — his falling-down-and-shooting backward goal as a rookie is an endless loop on his Wikipedia entry — but among the Capitals, he manages to be simply Alex. Ovechkin is teased by his teammates for his contract, for his scraggly beard and uneven haircut. He grew up in Russia playing the sport he loved since he was first exposed to it.

And he wants to win, which was the first thing Boudreau noticed.

“He helped us believe in each other,” Ovechkin said of Boudreau. “We believe in ourselves and believe in our power and we win the games now.”

The Capitals have climbed into the Southeast Division lead and occupy a playoff spot.

“Now we bring the fans and the crowd is very good,” Ovechkin said. “When it’s full, it’s unbelievable. Everybody has to understand, one player cannot bring a good team. It’s a whole team. We just have a great team right now, a young team, and everybody does what they can try to do to win.”

After a thrilling overtime victory over the Rangers last Sunday in which he had a goal and two assists, Ovechkin emerged from the Capitals’ locker room to greet a group of children who had gone to see him. He stopped to kiss his parents, Mikhail and Tatiana, before wading into the group to sign the red foam No. 8’s they had spent the game waving in support.

He entered with no fanfare and smiled his missing-tooth grin, posing for pictures. He sponsors a different group of 8-to-12-year-old underprivileged children with tickets for each game. Sometimes, the tickets go to military personnel. They sit in a lower section at Verizon Center in Washington, waving their No. 8’s.

“I think for kids, it’s very important when people take care of them,” Ovechkin said. “I want to give people a chance to see what is hockey because if they don’t know what’s going on, they can’t come to the game and see us.”

Ovechkin has quickly become Washington’s pied piper of hockey. Drafted by a franchise with so little success, Ovechkin arrived from Russia with much fanfare. His rookie season, immediately after the lockout, coincided with the arrival of Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.

From the beginning Ovechkin was different. He thrived in a league intent on freeing its superstars, scoring 52 goals to snatch rookie of the year honors from Crosby. He brought a combination of speed, a dazzling shot and relentless energy. He took hits and dished them out. His YouTube clips also include several big checks as well as a fight.

In his most spectacular game this season, an overtime victory over Montreal, he scored four goals, including the game winner, despite having his lip stitched after a puck hit him and having his nose broken when he was driven into the boards. He also had a cut under his eye from a high stick the previous game.

“He competes so hard,” Boudreau said. “That’s what sets him apart from other players.”

Ovechkin has also bucked convention by learning English quickly, asking the Capitals for an English-speaking roommate when he was a rookie. The N.H.L. marketing machine quickly latched on to his photogenic smile and sense of humor.

But Ovechkin said he was taught from a young age that what mattered most was his team’s success. That lesson came from his parents. Mikhail was a professional soccer player and Tatiana was a two-time gold medalist in basketball for the Soviet Union. As a teenager, Ovechkin helped Dynamo win a Superleague title.

“I don’t want to prove anything, I just want to win,” Ovechkin said. “I just want to go to the playoffs and go as far as we can. There is only one goal here. There is only one Stanley Cup.”

And, he is quick to remind people, he cannot win that by himself.

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