It is the jubilee that Alex Ovechkin always pictured. After 12 anguished off-seasons reflecting on missed opportunities, he’s hosting a Stanley Cup party with his family and friends after bringing the chalice home to his native Russia.
But even surrounded by all the people closest to him, ‘Ovie’ can’t let every last hair on his head down. He’s personally invited a special table of guests consisting of media members who crossed the Atlantic to write stories on his days with the Cup. They take part in the celebration, and he makes a point of holding a media-availability session during the festivities. He can’t help but share himself with the world. “When it comes to access, he embraces the responsibility of being a captain and being one of the faces of the NHL,” said Sergey Kocharov, the Capitals’ vice-president of communications.
Welcome to life as a hockey superstar. They earn that distinction because they’re the best players in the world, expected to accomplish Herculean feats on the ice, yet they carry just as much responsibility off it. How do NHL superstars juggle their jobs and the duties that come with being icons of the sport?
During the regular season, requests pile up for superstar players’ time, and not simply for pre- and post-game media availability. In Ovechkin’s case, there are traditional reporter interview requests but also an entire separate pile of asks from Russian media. There are commercials to shoot and endorsement obligations. Then there are internal requests for promotional work with a team’s marketing staff, guest-services department and corporate sponsors. In the busy weeks before a season starts, the Capitals may get 25 requests a week for Ovechkin’s services.
And that’s just on the team side. Superstars’ agents get swarmed with outstretched hands, too. CAA agent and co-head Pat Brisson, who represents Sidney Crosby and John Tavares, among many other monster names in the game, might get 10 additional requests for his superstar clients during the week, and he’ll often have to turn down eight or nine.
Why? Here’s the catch-22. Superstars become superstars first and foremost because they are such great players, and they’re such great players because they dedicate so much time to the hockey portion of their craft. “Someone like Sidney, someone like John Tavares, the guys who are in high demand and busy, there’s a reason why they’re in high demand: they’re very organized, they’re very good at what they do, and with the structure sometimes, the last-minute stuff doesn’t go too well, because they plan their day,” Brisson said. “ ‘Practice, and then after practice I’m having lunch, I’m having a good meal, I’m having my rest time.’ We have to respect and understand that. Sometimes people don’t understand and say, ‘I only need an hour.’ But you have to understand what that hour is in a day for someone who is busy, who has to perform night in and night out.”
To alleviate stress with his most meticulously organized star players, Brisson works with endorsement companies and sponsors to book as many requests as possible before the season starts – as much as 50 percent of them – so he can plan it all out in a calendar.
On a typical game day, a superstar won’t book any obligations before the morning skate. He’ll address a big media scrum following the skate. After that, he may have what Brisson calls a “meet and greet” – a short hangout or signing session with some fans. Then the player must perform all the steps to get his body right. In addition to eating and rest, that might mean injury treatments. Longer off-ice commitments, from commercials to in-depth interviews, typically fall on off days, but a player still may take some game-day media requests between his pre-game nap and pre-game meal. He’ll do availability post-game, too, often followed by more meet-and-greets, win or lose. There’s barely a moment to breathe.
As Octagon agent and co-managing director Allan Walsh explains, the superstar life is especially difficult for players who have started families. “A lot of them want to go drop their kids off at school or pick them up,” Walsh said. “They want to be involved as much as they can…So the time when they’re in town and actually available is fairly precious. It’s a never-ending battle of balancing the demands placed on them because of their status in the game and doing what’s right for themselves and their family.”
It’s actually a fairly rare problem for superstars, because so many of them hit their athletic and popularity peaks in their early-to-mid-20s before they even think about marriage and kids. Ovechkin thus finds himself in a unique spot. He’s still a superstar, the reigning holder of the Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe and Rocket Richard Trophies, but he’s also now a first-time father.
Another hurdle for NHL superstars: they’re typically humble people who have a difficult time saying no if someone asks them for something directly. That’s why teams and agents sometimes have to intervene. According to some agents, teams might impose moratoriums on appearances by the beginning of March, when playoff races intensify, or for brief periods when a team is slumping.
Agents often have to be their players’ dark knights and say what the superstars are simply too nice to say. “They’re judged,” Brisson said. “If they say no, people say, ‘He doesn’t want to do this for me.’ It’s not that. They have to be taking care of the essence first, which is their well-being and performance. At times we have to save them from themselves because they would be not only tempted to do too much, but they believe it’s the right thing to do, because they feel like they owe it to fans and people who are not in those situations.”
Yet honoring that very devotion to their fans is part of what makes these players superstars. It’s a paradox.