Long before he dreamed of planting a kiss on the Stanley Cup, Alex Ovechkin yearned to feel the weight of Olympic gold around his neck.
The Washington Capitals captain was bred for such lofty aspirations; he’s the son of Tatyana, a perennial World and European champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist in basketball, and Mikhail, a former professional soccer player. Ovechkin’s childhood home in Russia was adorned with his mother’s medals, which hung on the walls.
While Ovechkin’s collection of personal achievements — including three Hart Trophies as NHL MVP and three goal-scoring titles — places him among the greatest individual players the hockey world has ever seen, he can’t relate to the team success that surrounded him growing up.
Other than two first-place finishes at the 2008 and 2012 World Championships, the 28-year-old has experienced nothing but disappointment in tournament play. In eight NHL seasons, Ovechkin has never taken the Capitals past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. And in two previous Winter Olympics, he and his fellow Russians have failed to medal.
The Sochi Games are Ovechkin’s next opportunity to attain the team glory that has eluded him. Beginning on Feb. 13, when Russia takes the ice for its opening preliminary-round game against Slovenia (7:30 a.m. on MSNBC), Ovechkin and his countrymen will have the host nation’s undivided attention.
“Growing up in Russia, Olympics, it’s a lot for us,” Ovechkin said. “Maybe somebody don’t understand it, but it’s the biggest event maybe of our year and maybe of my life.”
Prior to its dissolution in 1991, the Soviet Union won seven of nine gold medals in men’s ice hockey between 1956 and 1988, and the Unified Team, representing six of the 15 former Soviet republics, claimed gold in 1992. Since then, however, Russia has only two medals — a silver in 1998 and a bronze in 2002 — to show for its past five Olympic appearances, four involving NHL participation.
A fresh-faced Ovechkin made his Olympic debut in 2006 at the age of 20. He scored five goals, including the game-winner in Russia’s 2-0 quarterfinal victory against Canada, and the team finished fourth. He was named to the all-tournament team.
Four years later, Ovechkin, by then a two-time NHL MVP with the Capitals, headlined a Russian squad that was among the pre-tournament favorites in Vancouver, but both he and the team flamed out. The homestanding Canadians exacted revenge, blowing out Russia in a 7-3 quarterfinal victory and rendering Ovechkin, who mustered only three shots on goal in that game, virtually invisible.
It was an embarrassing defeat that led to a sixth-place finish, and Russia had its poorest overall showing in the Winter Olympics since it began competing in 1912. That prompted then-president and current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to call for the nation’s top Olympic officials to resign.
“Let’s put up a bunch of guillotines and scaffolds up on Red Square,” Russia coach Vyacheslav Bykov told Russian reporters sardonically at the time. “We have 35 people on the hockey team. Let’s go to Red Square and dispatch with them all.”
This month, Russia will aim to restore its national pride as well as its place among the world’s hockey elite by boasting one of the most formidable 25-man rosters, particularly its world-class forward corps.
With the NHL taking an Olympic break from Feb. 9 to 26, Ovechkin will be joined by the likes of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin, the Detroit Red Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk, and Ilya Kovalchuk, formerly of the New Jersey Devils and now playing in the KHL.
“Since I was a little kid and since everybody [on the roster] was a little kid, their dream was to play in the Olympic Games,” Ovechkin said.
“Especially we have the chance to represent the country in Sochi, it’s unbelievable. … I don’t think somebody is going to just say their mission is done just to be in the Olympic Games. Our mission is to win the gold medal and play our best hockey.”
The expectations for the Russian hockey team are enormous, but Ovechkin, no stranger to intense scrutiny, is well-equipped to carry them on his shoulders.
“It’s going to be lots of pressure,” he said. “It’s going to be lots of media. It’s going to be lots of attention out there. Of course, when you get closer to that, you just have to handle it.”