The expectations for Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Games have been building for years. From the moment he was named an ambassador for the Games in the summer of 2009 it was clear that Ovechkin and his gap-toothed grin would be omnipresent images as Russia played host.
Reminders came each time a phone call beckoned him to make a promotional appearance in Russia or in the United States and each time reporters flocked to the Capitals’ training facility over the past four months to ask the star right wing not about his NHL team, but the responsibility he felt to deliver success on home ice.
On Sunday, Ovechkin will board a charter flight arranged by the NHL Players’ Association to take him and other Olympians to Sochi. His focus can then shift exclusively to the Olympics and helping Russia capture its first medal since a bronze finish in 2002.
But as Ovechkin turns his attention to the international stage, the entire hockey world will be watching and scrutinizing him. Knowing full well the pressure Ovechkin is on to excel in these Olympics, Coach Adam Oates sat down with the winger and offered some measured advice.
“What I said to him was, ‘You can’t control your coach, you can’t control your linemates, your teammates, how much you’re going to play, the luck of the draw, the bad bounce. It’s a one-week window. All you can control is how you play,’” Oates said. “’You’ve got to go over there and be the fastest, hardest working guy you can possibly be because that’s what they’ll remember – if something bad happens.’
“Something good happens, great. It’s a Cinderella story, it’s a fairytale. That’s what we all hope for him but you can’t guarantee that. I just want him to come out feeling like he left it on the table, he did the best he could possibly do. Hopefully that’s what people will talk about. I think no matter what happens if he does that he’ll come back with a positive experience.”
Russia’s embarrassment in 2010 in Vancouver, when it was eliminated in the quarterfinals and finished without a medal for the second consecutive Olympics, has created an obsessive focus on triumph in Sochi. Anything short of a gold medal will be considered a disappointment.
After Russia’s early exit in 2010, in which he scored two goals in four Olympic contests, Ovechkin recorded eight goals and 20 points in the final 17 NHL games that season after posting 42 goals and 89 points in his first 55 games that year. Many believe Ovechkin internalized Russia’s misstep in the Olympics and that manifested in his overall play once he returned.
So it is all but expected, whether the result is good or bad, that how Ovechkin fares with Russia in the Olympics will have some type of lingering effect on him when he returns to the Capitals.
That reality is why Oates simply encouraged Ovechkin to be at his best, because in his mind that’s all that should matter regardless of Russia’s result.
“It’s a tremendous amount of pressure and you can only control so many of the variables. It’s not like it’s an individual sport, it’s different,” Oates said. “I just want him to go over there and be flying so people go — no matter what happens – ‘Ovi showed up’. He did his part. That’s all you can control.”