There’s no denying the Washington Capitals star’s speed and size. He has a strong shot with a deceiving release. He can breeze through traffic but is hard to knock off his skates.
All those things make Ovechkin a great player, but it’s the big grin, and easy-going, friendly manner that makes him a very likeable person.
“I am a little bit crazy,” Ovechkin, last season’s NHL rookie of the year, said with a laugh after the Capitals practised Thursday. “I just try to be myself.
“My dream has come true. I play with the great players and on a great team. I’m smiling and happy and enjoying the time of my life.”
The 21-year-old Moscow native isn’t saying anything others haven’t said before him. It’s the way he said it.
It’s just not the English, that still gets a little skewed sometimes. It’s the honesty and enthusiasm behind the words.
Washington coach Glen Hanlon said Ovechkin’s pure joy of playing hockey seeps through the team.
“Every day he has a zest for life that I think is unmatched by a lot of top players,” said Hanlon. “He plays physical, he works hard every day. He’s a good teammate. He’s all of the things you hope all of your players have.
“The players love him and management loves him.”
Goaltender Olaf Kolzig said Ovechkin’s desire to fit in instantly made him popular with his teammates.
“He dove head first into everything we were doing,” said Kolzig. “He wanted to room with a North American guy so he could learn the language and the culture quicker. I think that helped in the way he played last year because he was comfortable right out of the gate. The rest of the team fed off his energy.”
Ovechkin took the league by storm last year. He had 52 goals and 106 points, leaving him third overall in scoring. It was also the third most points by a rookie ever.
Fans in Western Canada will finally get a chance to see the phenom. The Capitals play the Canucks Friday, the Oilers Saturday and the Flames Monday.
“When I play in Canada everybody loves hockey,” said Ovechkin, who has five goals and three assists in eight games. “It’s a nice place to play hockey.”
Ovechkin’s highlight-reel goals and outgoing nature have made him a star on and off the ice.
He drew cheers last June when he appeared at the draft in Vancouver to announce Washington’s pick. His face is on hockey publications and he’s been signed by Electronic Arts as the cover athlete and spokesman for its NHL 07 game.
All that could put a lot of pressure on a second-year player.
“I don’t think about being the face of the NHL,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t think about the second year.
“I played the first year, I know what the team can do. I go on the ice, I just play hockey. I play hard. Sometimes players know what I can do. I have to do some different things.”
In Wednesday’s 5-3 win over the Avalanche, Ovechkin rammed Karlis Skrastins with a hit that shattered the glass.
“It was one of the best hits of my career,” he said with a grin.
“When I was young my father told me, ‘If you want to play in the NHL you have to take hits and give hits.’ I love to score goals and I love to give some hits. It’s the game. You have to be ready for everything.”
During Thursday’s practice Ovechkin also wasn’t showing any effects from a slapshot on the leg that left him crumpled on the ice in Denver.
“It’s OK,” he said. “Russian machine. It never breaks.”
A couple of other Russians are also making news this year.
Ovechkin’s teammate Alexander Semin leads the Capitals with 12 points, including eight goals.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” said Ovechkin. “He’s a good guy and helps our team a lot.”
As good as Semin is, Ovechkin believes Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin be rookie of the year.
“I think he is the best rookie of the year,” said Ovechkin. “You can see how he plays. He scores goals.”
Malkin already has four goals and two assists in just four games.
Many wonder just how good Ovechkin can be.
Hanlon said he can’t be judged just on the goals he scores.
“We don’t expect him to score 60 goals to be a better player,” he said. “I don’t think there is something that you can say he has to get better at.
“I think it’s an evolution. The one area he has improved a lot in is learning how to get away from pressure, learning how to make line changes to get away from matchups. Just finding how to play the North American cat-and-mouse game.”