Carroll County Times

As pressure grows, Ovechkin grows up

WASHINGTON - On Sept. 4, Alex Ovechkin tied up some loose ends, said his goodbyes and boarded a flight out of Moscow, headed west.
Behind him was a summer spent shooting commercials, nuzzling with his fiancee and serving as the face of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Ahead, there was training camp, more love-bird nuzzling and another season as the face of the Washington Capitals. It was 40 degrees warmer that day in his adopted home town than in his true one, but metaphorically speaking, as Moscow Ovi gave way to D.C. Ovi somewhere over the North Atlantic, the heat on him died down, at least temporarily.
As long as this city has known him, there have always been two sides to Ovechkin, each with the ability to awe and delight: the goal-scoring magician and the bone-rattling brute, the club-hopping party boy and the unabashed mama's boy. There was also, by virtue of his bicontinental existence, always two culturally distinct versions of him: D.C. Ovi, who often compensated for his English language insecurities by adopting a larger-than-life persona, was someone you would want to party with. Moscow Ovi was someone you would want to befriend.
But with each year that passes in Ovechkin's dazzling NHL career, the distinctions become less pronounced, his hard edges gradually softening and his complexes no longer so obvious. There is, in many ways, just one Ovi now - one who, at age 28, arrives at the start of another season for the Capitals in an unprecedented state of peace, both professionally and personally.
His 10-month-old engagement to Russian tennis star Maria Kirilenko has grounded him and brought purpose to his home life. On the ice, his strong relationship with second-year Capitals coach Adam Oates, his growing comfort with last year's switch from left to right wing and the late-spring resurgence that brought him his third Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player have silenced those who only 18 months ago were questioning whether he was still an elite player.
At the same time, however, his career is still at least partly defined by the two glaring omissions on his resume: an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup title. The quest for both will dominate the next nine months for Ovechkin, bringing with it a perhaps unprecedented level of pressure and scrutiny - both in Russia, the host country for an Olympics for only the second time in its history, and in Washington, where each maddening flame-out in the playoffs both draws further attention to Ovechkin's lack of a Cup title and lowers the Capitals' window by another year.
"It's not something I can relate to, because I don't think I've ever had that much burden or responsibility on my shoulders. But you can definitely see it," said Capitals goaltender coach Olaf Kolzig, who was the face of the franchise before Ovechkin's arrival in 2005. "He seems really at peace now. But having said that, there are still expectations to win the Stanley Cup here, and with each year that passes, there's more and more pressure. And then, you add the Olympics in his home country, and - wow. It'll be interesting to see how he handles it."
Ovechkin's familiar, distinctive face - those blue eyes and high cheekbones, that thick unibrow, the thrice-broken nose that lists to the left, that gap-toothed smile - is now ringed by flecks of gray in his meticulously tousled hair, a vivid reminder that time is no longer his faithful ally. He is now roughly at the midpoint of the 13-year, $124 million contract he signed in January 2008, and if hockey history is any guide, has more great seasons behind him than ahead of him.
"Time moves fast. It's all I can say," Ovechkin said last week. "Of course, you always want to be 24, 23 years old. But it's impossible. . . . When I came [to Washington] first time, I was think, you gonna be that kind of guy who's gonna stay close to the great ones. I win three [MVPs]. It's a big honor, and you want to win more and more. But it's individual stuff. . . . We have to move forward as a group and as individuals as well."
People close to Ovechkin in the Capitals organization say his primary motivation in hockey is to bring a Stanley Cup to Washington, but in any Olympic year the Capitals understand that the duality of the two Ovis is more pronounced - that there is, by definition, an NHL Ovi and an Olympics Ovi, each with his own pressures and needs. The Capitals understand they have to share their franchise player with Russia, but never has the arrangement been more tangled than it is this season.
In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was named general secretary of the Communist Party, bringing with him the ideas for reform - glasnost and perestroika - that would eventually lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. On Sept. 17 of that year, a 12-pound baby boy, Alexander Mikhaylovich Ovechkin, was born in Moscow to sports royalty. His mother, Tatyana, was a former star basketball player who led the Soviet Union to Olympic gold medals in 1976 and 1980; his father, Mikhail, was a former professional soccer player.
The boy grew up to be both a hockey prodigy - at 17, he became the youngest player in history to skate for the Russian national team - and a faithful son of his motherland. The boy would eventually ply his trade in an arena 10 blocks from the White House, but he has always seen himself as a Russian who lent his talents to the NHL, rather than the other way around.
"When you growing up as a kid [in the United States] or Canada, everybody dreaming about Stanley Cups," Ovechkin explained recently. "But in Russia, everybody dreaming about Olympics."
The look of unbridled joy on Ovechkin's face after leading Russia to gold medals at the 2008 and 2012 world championships is one that Capitals fans see in their dreams.
"Sasha is a true, a real patriot," Vladislav Tretiak, president of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia, said. "He plays a very tough style of hockey, and the fans love this. He's a real man and a real hockey player." Sochi 2014, Tretiak added, "is another chance to show everyone he's a real superstar, with a capital S."
But to this point, Olympic play has brought Ovechkin only dejection and pain. In the 2006 Turin Games, he was named to the all-tournament team after scoring a total of five goals - including the game-winner past legendary goalie Martin Brodeur to eliminate Canada - but Team Russia failed to medal.
And then, at the 2010 Vancouver Games, came humiliation. Loaded with stars and tabbed as one of the pre-tournament favorites, Russia was eliminated before the medal round, its final statement a 7-3 collapse against Canada in the quarterfinals, with Ovechkin failing to record a point.
"It was a catastrophe," Ovechkin told Russian reporters. "We destroyed all the good and even memorable that has been achieved by the national team of Russia in recent years."
Equally disgusting for Ovechkin, no doubt, was seeing Sidney Crosby - his longtime rival for the title of best player in the world - lead Canada to the gold medal with a dramatic overtime goal against the United States. The "Golden Goal," as it became known, cemented Crosby's legend in his home country, and along with his 2009 Stanley Cup title with the Pittsburgh Penguins, gave him the two pieces of hardware Ovechkin coveted most.
When Ovechkin returned to the Capitals following the Olympics, something had changed. The Olympic failure stayed with him, as he was held without a goal in six of his first seven games after the break. That April, the Capitals - who finished the regular season with the best record in the NHL - blew a 3-1 series lead to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, losing in seven games.
"I know for sure that Ovechkin was so offended [by the Olympics loss] that he could not perform the rest of season," Sergei Fedotov, a prominent television commentator for the Eastern European Kontinental Hockey League, said through a interpreter. "The stress was tremendous on other players as well, but for Ovechkin - maybe because he is very emotional, the Olympic Games had a huge impact on his performance."
Ovechkin's post-Vancouver flameout is on the minds of Capitals officials and teammates as another Olympics approaches - this one with even higher stakes for No. 8, as it will be in his home country. The hope, of course, is that the 28-year-old Ovechkin will be better equipped to handle his return to the Capitals, no matter the Olympic outcome, better than the 24-year-old Ovechkin did.
"I think Alex is much more mature now," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. "He's a man now. I think he'll be able to process it better."
But as one well-intended joke making its way around the team's front office puts it, the Capitals are probably screwed either way: If Russia loses, Ovechkin will need two weeks to recover from the devastating blow, and if Russia wins, he will need two weeks to recover from the hangover.
On Sunday, another long plane ride brought Ovechkin back to Washington from Olympia, Greece, where over the weekend he was the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch on its journey to Sochi - a singular honor that underscored his stature as Russia's official Olympic ambassador.
Tonight, Ovechkin will take the ice for the Capitals on the road against the Chicago Blackhawks for the opener of the season, his ninth in the NHL.
To make the torch relay work, Ovechkin had to get the permission of Leonsis, general manager George McPhee and Oates, as well as the blessing teammates.
There were obvious questions asked: Can you make it work, logistically, with minimal disruption to the Capitals' practice and game schedules? And can you make it work, emotionally - this toggling between duties?
"We were a little concerned. But he knows his obligation is here in Washington, and he has to be back here for that first game," veteran defenseman Mike Green said. "I give him credit. I look at my summers and his summers - he does a lot of endorsements, media, Olympics stuff. I don't know that I could do that year-round and have that pressure on me."
On a recent morning at the Capitals' training headquarters, Oates put his charges through a vigorous practice, pausing every 15 minutes or so to call the team over to a whiteboard attached to the glass near the bench, where he drew up and explained another play. Each time, Ovechkin, the team's captain since 2010, skated to a spot front and center, taking a knee, his eyes darting between the whiteboard and Oates' face. When the lessons broke up, Ovechkin often stayed in his place, studying the whiteboard, before skating off to put Oates' vision in motion.
The Capitals can see, in Ovechkin, the makings of a potential monster season. This may be attributable, in part, to the sense of groundedness in his personal life, as evidenced by his engagement to Kirilenko, and the carryover in confidence from his MVP-winning 2012-13 season. But mostly, it is because of Oates. Perhaps it took one superstar to understand another, but Oates, in a relatively short amount of time, has established the kind of connection with Ovechkin that his predecessors could not.
"I don't think anybody in the league have that kind of a relationship with their coach," Ovechkin said. "Not only hockey stuff - he cares about what happening in life. When we talk about hockey, he's coach. But I can ask his opinion" on other things.
Kolzig said of Oates, "He's a Hall of Famer. It's that kind of coach who has finally gotten through to Alex. Alex knows Adam has his back, and Adam knows who his top guy is."
It almost goes without saying that this coach-superstar dynamic stands in stark contrast to what occurred in 2010-11 and 2011-12 - unquestionably the two worst seasons of Ovechkin's career - when first Bruce Boudreau and then Dale Hunter tried to incorporate him into a defense-first system.
"I'm enjoy playing hockey right now," Ovechkin said. "Last couple years, I didn't enjoy because I don't feel comfortable out there - the system, the atmosphere between me and coach. . . . I was not happy."
With Boudreau, Ovechkin said, "I think we lost connection." With Hunter, he said, "I didn't talk at all."
"I would say during those two years he was troubled," Leonsis said. "But why I admire him is that he never complained. He never was a force of negativity - by going around George or coming to me to try to do anything."
If the blossoming relationship with Oates informs Ovechkin's resurgence on the ice, keeping him both focused and happy, his relationship with Kirilenko does the same for the other half of his life.
This is a man who is flat-out smitten. When he strolls the hallways after practice looking down at his phone, he is often checking for tennis scores. That trusty Internet staple - the Ovi-in-the-club photo, with a blonde on his arm or a beer in his hand, or sometimes both - has all but disappeared. He spent his 28th birthday earlier this month at one of his favorite Washington restaurants for a quiet dinner with some close friends after a preseason game.
"I stop do some stuff what I did before. I have her right now," he said. "But I'm the same guy. I'm just growing up - be not like a wolf in the forest anymore."
The wolf had his day, and by all accounts it was one prolific run, but perhaps an empty one - not unlike the flashy seasons the young Ovi had on the ice, with their gaudy statistics and individual accolades but without the ultimate validation.
This season, this segment of Ovechkin's life, then, is about the big things: love, glory, legacy. It is about finding meaning in what matters. It is about setting his sights upon the prize, and claiming it - whether it be the Stanley Cup, the Olympic gold or the heart of Maria Kirilenko.
Here, on the doorstep of a new season, he is already one for one.