By Stephen Whyno
ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Wayne Gretzky’s 894 career goals has for a long time been one of hockey’s hallowed numbers, record that would never be broken with scoring in the NHL so different now.
But great players will keep coming after the “Great One.” Alex Ovechkin is ready to take his shot.
Ovechkin starts a new five-year contract with the Washington Capitals with 730 goals, 165 away from passing Gretzky. The Russian superstar is 36 and would need to score at a pace never before seen from an older player to approach that mark by the time his contract is up.
“You never know,” Ovechkin said after signing the $47.5 million deal. “I’m going to try (my) best. That’s why I want to play five more years. To have a chance to catch the ‘Great One,’ why not?”
Age and health are his biggest obstacles. Ovechkin has been absurdly durable during his career, especially for a 6-foot-3 power forward who’s not afraid to throw his body around, but the seven games he missed to injury late last season are more than the previous decade combined.
The hard-shooting Russian suffered a lower-body injury in Washington’s exhibition finale, though coach Peter Laviolette hopes his captain plays in the opener and does not expect him to be out long term.
No matter how long the absence, it’s the kind of thing Gretzky thinks Ovechkin will need to avoid.
“You’ve got to get a little bit lucky in the sense that you want to stay away from injuries as much as possible,” said Gretzky, who will get a front-row seat for Ovechkin’s chase as part of TNT’s new studio team covering the NHL. “And I don’t just mean missing game injuries. I’m talking about nagging injuries where your knee is sore or your ankle’s sore or your shoulder’s sore, but you play through that. If he can stay healthy, I think this is the greatest thing for the game.”
Ovechkin needs to average 33 goals a season to get to 895 over the next five seasons, but he’s also trying to keep up with Father Time. Gretzky put up 21 goals at age 36, and Ovechkin probably needs to clear 40 this season and maybe next to have a legitimate chance.
General manager Brian MacLellan senses that Ovechkin is energized, motivated to chase the record and in good shape to try it.
“He has a passion for the game, for goal-scoring, and I think that’ll carry over over the next five years,” MacLellan said.
No one has ever doubted that. Ovechkin’s unbridled joy after scoring goals became one of the most endearing things about the NHL coming out of the 2004-05 lockout that wiped out an entire season.
Ovechkin does not harbor the same enthusiasm for repeatedly answering questions about Gretzky’s record or climbing up the career list. He’s one back of Marcel Dionne for fifth and could realistically pass Brett Hull (741) and Jaromir Jagr (766) this season to put himself in third, behind only Gretzky and Gordie Howe.
“Let’s don’t look too far,” Ovechkin said. “Game by game, step by step.”
Ovechkin’s teammates are glad to be along for the ride and aiding in his quest. Winger Tom Wilson guesses “there’s going to be some pressure on his linemates to get him the puck.” That’s no pressure for longtime running mate Nicklas Backstrom, who has assisted on 269 of Ovechkin’s goals since entering the league in 2008.
“I absolutely think it’s realistic,” Backstrom said of Ovechkin’s record pursuit. “If anyone can do it, it’s him. That’s the kind of hunger he’s got, and that’s the kind of goal-scorer he is.”
Having a good team around him helps. The Capitals are built to contend for at least two or three more seasons, and there’s no shortage of skilled offensive players ready to dish Ovechkin the puck.
Ovechkin will take his shot but acknowledged, “If I’m going to be second, it’s a pretty good number, as well.” He just needs 72 goals for sole possession of second, but Gretzky believes Ovechkin will be atop the list by the time he retires.
“He’s definitely got a legitimate shot,” Gretzky said. “I’m one of his biggest fans, and it’s only good for the game if he can break the record. He just has to be relaxed, and it’s going to take two, three, four years but eventually he’s probably going to break the record.”