Can Alex Ovechkin bring Olympic gold back to Russia?

The pressure to win gold on home ice in Sochi with the president of Russia watching must be unbearable for Alex Ovechkin. Not really. He says this is a forum that will bring out the best in him.

Little-known fact: Alex Ovechkin has ink. He’s not hockey’s version of Chris Andersen or anything, but the two tattoos on either side of his lower back are big, dark blue, thick and Chinese. One of them says “Life” and the other “Family.” They do not say, as Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates suggested after a recent game in Buffalo, “I love Oatsie.”

Another little-known fact: Tatyana Ovechkina’s women’s basketball gold medals from the 1976 and 1980 Summer Olympics are in the garage of the family home in Moscow. But her son’s hockey medals are on display in a glass case along a wall. They provide a wonderful decorative symmetry, with three gold medals (World Junior Championship 2003, World Championship 2008 and 2012), three silvers (under-18 World Championship 2002, World Junior Championship 2005, World Championship 2010) and three bronze (under-18 World Championship 2003, World Championship 2005 and 2007). And yes, there’s plenty of room for an Olympic gold medal, a bauble that eluded Ovechkin in 2006 and 2010.

Ridiculously well-known fact: There isn’t an athlete in any sport from any country who will face more intense, suffocating and mind-numbing pressure than Alexander Mikhailovich Ovechkin will in Sochi 2014. Hey, who’s the gold medal favorite in the two-man luge event? Don’t know? Didn’t think so. But Ovechkin is the gap-toothed face of Russian hockey, one of the NHL’s most flamboyant superstars and an all-around bon vivant. For Mother Russia, Ovechkin is the torchbearer, literally and figuratively. The Winter Olympics are in Russia for the first time and when president Vladimir Putin, a guy who seems accustomed to getting what he wants, says he expects a gold medal, there tends to be a little urgency to deliver.

(Putin, by the way, was recently on the ice at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, playing on a team with Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko in a game involving former Russian hockey stars. Their team won. Imagine that. When you watch Putin play on YouTube, you see a guy who seems to get an inordinate amount of room in front of the net for a lumbering skater. In another clip, that goalie seems reeeaaallly slow getting his glove up for a high backhander. Coincidence? We think nyet.)

Ovechkin, meanwhile, is well on his way to winning his second straight Rocket Richard Trophy as the most prolific goal scorer in the NHL. He’s also on pace to go minus-34. But once he steps on the ice with the best players in the world in Sochi, none of that will matter. All that will, for everyone from peasants to Putin, is a gold medal for the home team. At this moment in time, people in Russia don’t care how many Stanley Cups Ovechkin wins during his career or how many trophies he collects. They don’t care that he and his fiancee, tennis star Maria Kirilenko, will one day make beautiful babies who will have the genes to deliver more talented athletes to Russia.

For Ovechkin, it’s all about here and now. Sidney Crosby, the player with whom Ovechkin is most often compared, scored the golden goal to win it for Canada in 2010. Now it’s up to Ovechkin to create the same kind of magic. Adding to the pressure for Russia is the ignominy of finishing fourth in 2006 and then sixth in 2010, after being blasted in the quarterfinal by Canada in a game in which Russian goalie Ilya Bryzgalov likened the Canadian players to “gorillas coming out of a cage.”

When it comes to gold medals, the Russians are 0-for-the-past-5 Olympics and, more importantly, haven’t won since the tournament became a best-on-best event with NHL players in 1998. They last won it all in 1992 under the clunky and rather contradictory Unified Team banner, back when Alex Ovechkin was just six and didn’t have Putin’s phone number. And, oh yeah, the Russians haven’t exactly torn it up at the Olympics with Ovechkin, who is known more for his thundering hit on Jaromir Jagr in Vancouver than for anything else he did on the ice in the tournament.

In fact, you could argue the Vancouver experience was the precise moment when Ovechkin’s play fell off the map, only to be revived by Oates last season. Going into those Olympics, Ovechkin was riding high, with 42 goals and 89 points in 54 games. Then came the Olympics. Ovechkin said Russia’s fatal mistake was losing in a shootout to Slovakia (he scored once on three tries against Jaroslav Halak) that forced a quarterfinal against Canada. It was billed as Ovechkin vs. Crosby, but in reality it was the Canadian line of Jonathan Toews between Rick Nash and Mike Richards that shut down the Russian trio of Malkin between Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. Canada led 4-1 after one period and cruised to a 7-3 victory in which Ovechkin was largely invisible, going AWOL after a crushing hit from Canadian defenseman Shea Weber.

Ovechkin scored just eight goals in 18 NHL games down the stretch that year, then failed to lift his Capitals out of the first round against the Montreal Canadiens, despite the fact the Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy. He spent much of the next two seasons in a funk, unproductive offensively and seemingly without the same joie de vivre he had displayed earlier in his career. It was only when Oates came to the Capitals that Ovechkin turned his game around.

“I always enjoy the game, but for you guys, Alex Ovechkin has to score every game,” Ovechkin said. “Of course I read the news, I watch TV and I listen to what people say about me. The pressure was just pressure. It’s still on me and it will never go away. But as soon as I started scoring goals everybody was saying I’m back, but I was always there.”

In reality, when the puck dropped for Russia’s first game Feb. 13 against Slovenia, the play of Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Andrei Markov and Semyon Varlamov were just as vital to Russia’s gold-medal hopes. But so much of it comes down to Ovechkin. Back in the fall, surrounded by Greek goddesses (nothing out of the ordinary there), Ovechkin was the first Russian athlete to carry the Olympic torch from Olympia, igniting the hopes of fans in his homeland the moment he took the flame.

“Maybe,” Ovechkin said when asked whether he’ll face more pressure than any athlete in Sochi. “But pressure is always on me. I know how to handle it and I know everything about pressure. I’m probably the most pressure guy in the league since I got here.”

If you need a refresher on how much playing in the 2014 Olympics means to Ovechkin, harken back to a few years ago when he pronounced that, NHL approval be damned, he would participate in the Sochi Games. Some have even credited the pressure Ovechkin put on the NHL as a factor in the league’s decision to participate. The NHL hasn’t been terribly keen on the Olympics since it realized it couldn’t make millions of dollars from them and, in reality, this may be the last time we see NHLers at the Games. The 2018 Games will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which represents a whopping 14-hour time difference from Eastern Standard Time. The 2022 Games will be held in one of Sweden, Poland, Norway, Kazakhstan, Ukraine or China, so the prospect of the NHL scrapping the concept is very real.

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Ovechkin had the backing of his owner Ted Leonsis, who not only approved Ovechkin’s decision, but said he would fly Ovechkin to and from Sochi in a charter jet to play in the Games. Other Russian athletes waffled on the question, but Ovechkin was adamant from the beginning that he would be there regardless of the repercussions. It’s a decision he stands by as he sits with his toque over his ears in a hotel lobby in Buffalo in late December.

“You know, money is one thing, but your country is another thing,” Ovechkin said. “If I lose my money from getting suspended for months, two weeks or three weeks, if I don’t get paid, I can still live without it. I’m going to be fine. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be there and try to win the gold.”

Even with last year’s lockout, Ovechkin has made more than $45 million so far in the NHL and stands to have more than $130 million in career earnings when his current contract expires in 2021. Ovechkin will be 35 by that time. Who knows whether he’ll ever win a Stanley Cup? Even an Olympic gold isn’t guaranteed. In reality, the Russians are top-heavy in top-shelf offensive talent.

But none to worry. It stands to reason Ovechkin’s center will be one of Malkin or Datsyuk and playing the right wing on his line will be one of NHL refugee Alexander Radulov or young NHL stars Valeri Nichushkin or Vladimir Tarasenko. What’s that, you say? Ovechkin won’t be playing right wing? Probably not, even though Oates’ decision to move him to the right side last season has rejuvenated Ovechkin’s career and led him to what will almost certainly be two consecutive Rocket Richard Trophies. Oates reasoned Ovechkin would see more offensive opportunities and become less predictable if he played his natural side of the ice. But the Russians, who like to have their wingers on their forehands when they go to the net, have traditionally had forwards play their off wings.

“He and I talked about it. He said, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘I think you should play your off side,’ ” Oates says. “Because that’s the way his countrymen have grown up. That’s the way they play, so it makes sense for him to flip the switch and go back because that’s their chemistry. Our chemistry is a different one and that’s why I like him on the right side.”

What the Russian team is lacking, though, is depth of talent. With a roster almost equally split between the NHL and Kontinental League, the Russians simply don’t have the third and fourth lines to compete with the likes of Canada, Sweden and the U.S. The KHL has, of course, attracted Radulov and Kovalchuk, but it remains roughly on par with the American League in terms of talent. That will do nothing but increase the pressure on the NHL’s stars – and Ovechkin – to deliver during the tournament.

Adding to that pressure is Ovechkin’s relationship with Putin. The two aren’t close in a let’s-take-our-shirts-off-and-ride-horses kind of way, but Ovechkin once acknowledged he actually has Putin’s home phone number, though he’s never home when Ovechkin calls. (“He’s a pretty busy man,” Ovechkin says.) What Ovechkin likes most about Putin is that, among other things, he’s helped the basketball team Ovechkin’s mother manages, he’s raised the profile of sport in Russia and, in the old Soviet style, has invested in athletics and the prestige it brings a country when its performers are successful on the world stage.

“Yeah, he’s a great person,” Ovechkin says. “I know you guys don’t like him.”

Well, that might be a bit of a stretch, but the rest of the world is, let’s say, a little wary of the Russian president. Putin, a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, once called the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Several international groups have claimed the current human rights situation in Russia is worse now than it has ever been during the post-Soviet era. Putin has tried to varnish his image with an amnesty bill in December that resulted in the release of imprisoned members of the punk band Pussy Riot, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of Greenpeace who were all jailed after speaking out against Putin’s regime.

But by far the biggest controversy has been Russia’s anti-gay rights legislation, which has made it a crime to distribute “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors, a law that was enacted with the support of the majority of Russian people. Numerous world leaders have responded by vowing to not go to Sochi. U.S. president Barack Obama made it clear he won’t attend the Games, nor will the first lady, the vice-president or any members of his cabinet. Instead, Obama appointed a delegation that includes gay former athletes Billie Jean King and Brian Boitano, as well as Caitlin Cahow, who won silver and bronze Olympic medals with the U.S. women’s hockey team.

“I think the delegation speaks for itself,” Obama said when asked whether the delegation was designed to send a message to Russia.

Ovechkin is clearly not comfortable discussing the law. He has lived and worked in North America for more than eight years now and, while he’s probably not about to become an ambassador for the You Can Play project, he makes it clear this is a government decision and he’s not about to endorse or criticize it.

“For me, athletics is athletics, I don’t care who’s gay and who’s not gay,” he says. “I don’t know anybody in hockey who is gay, so I’m kind of in a weird position. I support everybody.

“It’s not as bad as in the ’60s when if you were gay you were going to be killed. Right now, the world is almost free and you can do whatever you want. So, whatever.”

Fair enough. Ovechkin is an athlete and he probably said more than most of his counterparts would in that situation. Datsyuk came out in support of the laws, citing his Christian Orthodox beliefs. Ovechkin is more focused on the task at hand, but both Oates and linemate Nicklas Backstrom have said he has done a remarkable job of putting the stress of the Olympics aside. It’s interesting to note, however, that as the Olympics approached, Ovechkin’s prodigious offensive output diminished. In the five games the Capitals played after the Christmas break, Ovechkin had just one goal.

“I don’t think he takes it as pressure, he’s more excited by it,” Backstrom says. “He takes all the pressure and flips it around. He sees it as no pressure and he looks forward to it instead of squeezing his stick. That’s the kind of guy he is and that’s why he is where he is.”

For 11 days in February – perhaps fewer depending on how the Russian team does – Ovechkin will be in the biggest pressure cooker of his career. A little more than a month before the Olympics, he was still all smiles. When asked whether he would rather win a Stanley Cup or a gold medal, Ovechkin consults his calendar.

“Right now?” he says. “An Olympic gold.”

This feature originally appeared in the Jan. 27 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.