SPRINGFIELD, Va. – Alex Ovechkin is hardly the first professional athlete to emphasize winning percentage above personal statistics, to maintain he’s all about team, to insist he won’t rest until he’s earned a championship.
“I want to win the Stanley Cup; that’s why we play hockey in the NHL,” he said during an interview at the Washington Capitals’ charity golf event this week. “I’m always that way. I want to do everything for the victory.”
Standard stuff, right?
Here, then, is what separates Ovechkin: He isn’t just talk.
This is an MVP who skates with the rookies, a US$124-million man who thinks nothing of a two-hour drive on his night off to catch a little exhibition hockey, a league-leading scorer who keeps close tabs on what the club is up to during free agency.
All with a singular aim.
“Ultimately,” teammate Brooks Laich said, “I don’t think Alex will go to sleep at night until he’s won a Stanley Cup.”
Ovechkin took it upon himself to lace up his skates and get out on the ice at the Capitals’ rookie camp in September, a week before the defending Southeast Division champions opened training camp for veterans.
“I just want to support all the guys on my team,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter if they play in the NHL or the minors.”
Coach Bruce Boudreau appreciated the effort.
“When I blew the whistle, he was the first one to get over to me, the first one in line,” Boudreau said. “And I’m sure – because he’s this smart – he knew players would see that and they would say, ‘Well, if that’s how Alex Ovechkin operates, that’s how I want to operate.’ He never wanted any applause or anything. He just knew this was a good thing to do for the kids.”
Ovechkin, who just turned 23, is basically a kid himself, one whose energy, enthusiasm and will to win are infectious.
That’s the case whether he’s slamming his body into the boards to celebrate one of his goals or tackling a teammate to celebrate one of theirs. Or trying to beat linemate Nicklas Backstrom at table tennis. Or showing off during a pickup basketball game at a team dinner last weekend (Ovechkin’s mother won two Olympic gold medals in that sport; his hockey jersey bears her No. 8). Or playing poker (“When he bluffs,” goalie Jose Theodore said, “he’s going to show you his cards – just to let you know.”).
Or carrying on during a charity golf outing.
Ovechkin dished fist bumps on the green of the first hole, then slapped high-fives between yells of “Whooo!” and “Yes!” after his next tee shot. He prepared for a par-3 by bouncing a ball on the head of an iron and jokingly referring to himself as “Tiger.” He plopped his first effort there into the water, then took a mulligan and put his second try right on the green, turning to anyone who would listen to shout, “Told you! Told you!”
So much for country club manners, eh?
“Guys like that – you know why they’re always on top. It’s because they try to be the best at whatever they do,” veteran enforcer Donald Brashear said. “They always try to win, and they always find a way to.”
To that end, Ovechkin’s actions speak loudly.
Teammates take note of what might seem like little gestures, such as when he hopped in his car and went to Philadelphia during the pre-season to watch the Capitals play a game from which he was scratched. Did the same thing last year.
The Russian is no prima donna on skates, either. He ranked in the league’s top 10 in hits last season and helped kill penalties this pre-season – doing the latter, Ovechkin said, because then “the whole team trusts you” – even though those aren’t the skills that prompted the Capitals to rebuild around him.
They, of course, were fascinated by the talent that allowed him to break the NHL record for goals by a left wing with 65 last season, the first player at any position to top 60 in a dozen years. Add in his 47 assists, and Ovechkin led the league in total points. Not only are his 163 goals so far 17 more than anyone else has scored since the start of 2005-06, but his total ranks No. 3 in history for a player’s first three NHL seasons, behind only Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy.
Boudreau acknowledges he was nervous when he was introduced to Ovechkin while still coaching Washington’s AHL affiliate.
“Well, you know,” Boudreau explained, “it’s like when I first met Gretzky.”
Boudreau is far from the only person associated with the Capitals who speaks about Ovechkin in reverential tones.
“He’s a remarkable human being. He’s very self-actualized at a very young age,” owner Ted Leonsis said.
The fawning is the sort that might lead to resentment among teammates.
“You know why it’s not an issue? Because Alex isn’t like that. If Alex was like that and just craved the spotlight and just talked about himself, then maybe it would rub guys the wrong way,” Laich said. “We haven’t heard Alex say one word about himself being the star and himself winning these awards and himself earning all this money. We haven’t heard one word of that.”
Instead, they hear about how Ovechkin called a Capitals spokesman over and over from Russia on July 1, the first day of free agency, and checked in with general manager George McPhee, too, intent on getting the latest news.
“He cares a lot about this club,” McPhee said, “and wants to know what’s going on.”
Ovechkin was the first player to get in touch with Theodore after Washington signed the 2002 league MVP.
“He said, ‘Welcome to the Capitals.’ It was nice for a guy his age to call me,” the 32-year-old Theodore said. “He showed a lot of maturity.”
Ovechkin has been acting more like a grown-up in other ways, too. He surprised McPhee by showing up for the official team photo clean-shaven, his usual scruff gone. And Ovechkin said he plans to get a new tooth soon to fill the gap in his grin.
That space is still there, for now, and it shows every time Ovechkin smiles, which he does a lot. Not, however, while discussing last season, which ended with a loss to the Flyers in overtime of Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs.
Let others revel in what Ovechkin achieved in 2007-08.
“It’s done. It’s history,” Ovechkin said, peering out from under the bent brim of a black baseball cap that’s part of his new clothing line. “This year? You never know. But I hope we’re going to be the best team in the league.”