MOSCOW — Alex Ovechkin’s game was close to starting the other night, his fifth since he began playing in Russia, back home because of the NHL lockout. Ovechkin’s Dynamo squad was up against the catchily named and undoubtedly slick Oil Chemists — that’s Neftekhimik from Nizhnekamsk, about 550 miles east of Moscow.
The president of the Dynamo fan club was talking about how Kontinental Hockey League stars sparkle within the team firmament instead of becoming the center of the universe — Washington Capitals captain included.
“He’s from here, so of course he’s popular,” Ivan Khavkhalo conceded before offering some perspective. “But we have a team, so we are fans of the team, and not one player.”
Yes, hockey is different here. The rink is wider. The seats are emptier. Alex is called Sasha. And most fans don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. They prefer knit blue and white team scarves to expensive player’s jerseys.
Built in 1956, the Luzhniki Sports Arena remains in an earlier, simpler time — before elegant Bentleys and hulking black SUVs sped through the Moscow streets and women teetered along the sidewalks on skyscraper heels that can cost a month’s pay. Hockey fans walk there from the subway in sport-friendly shoes.
“We don’t have the same possibilities to give a show the way you do in America,” Khavkhalo said, with some regret. Here the show consists of eight young women waving white pom-poms — but they change their costumes between periods.
The old no-razzmatazz stadium allows for deep attention to the sport, fans say. “Hockey here — let’s say it’s slower and more intellectual than in the NHL,” said Roman Sizov, a fan who has been watching Ovechkin since the player was 17, first with Dynamo and later with the NHL via satellite TV.
Ovechkin returned to his home town last month with the NHL’s owners and players in a labor stalemate. The 27-year-old said last month that he “won’t rule out staying in the KHL, even past this season,” if a new collective bargaining agreement won’t honor the nine years and $88 million remaining on his Capitals contract.
The game against Neftekhimik would not disappoint. Dynamo won, 5-1, and Ovechkin finished with a goal and an assist. Two nights later, Dynamo beat Ak Bars Kazan, 2-0, with another assist from Ovechkin. In 11 contests, he leads the team with 11 points.
“He was at his best,” Sizov said later, talking about the Neftekhimik game. “He played more of an individual game, and he did great.”
Sizov, who goes to every home game and half of the away games, was especially pleased that Ovechkin rose to the challenge presented by Ak Bars (the name means Snow Leopard in the Tatar language of that Russian region).
“That was a very, very difficult game,” Sizov said. “The opponent was a very, very strong team.”
Ovechkin was constantly under scrutiny in Washington last season, seemingly unwilling to make changes to his game despite his offensive production dropping to an all-time low. In the playoffs, he was considered a defensive liability, relegated to the bench when the Capitals were protecting a lead.
But with Dynamo, Sizov said he sees Ovechkin surrendering personal style for team play.
“Everyone could see how hard it was for him to sacrifice his individual style, but he did it,” Sizov said. “If he hadn’t, we would have lost. He did as the coach asked. His game was strict. He didn’t take risks. He assisted the last goal. So he’s a great guy.”
Mikhail Anisin, a Dynamo right winger, agreed that Ovechkin has become a leader here — and brought much-appreciated energy. “Sasha is an expert, and he plays very well,” he said. “It’s hard to say anything else.”
Pressed for more, he added, “He has an NHL style, of course. He shoots a lot. That’s their style.”
While Ovechkin communicates clearly on the ice — immediate, forceful, direct — it’s harder to pin him down in person. Attempts to speak to him were unsuccessful. Although he agreed to an interview in principle, he had not yet found the time when publication rolled around.
Before the Neftekhimik game, Khavkhalo sat in the arena’s Press Bar, where the strongest beverage on sale was black tea with lemon. An orange cat walked purposefully along a corridor and into the bar, strolling around as if looking for a drinking buddy, or at least a mouse. A woman came in carrying a delicate bouquet of flowers.
Khavkhalo, a cheerful 25-year-old, hailed a friend. “Hey, animal, where are your seats?”
He’s a bit younger than Ovechkin, and also played on the Dynamo youth team, with the same coach, until he broke his knee. “I remember when I skated — he never left the rink,” Khavkhalo said. “He worked so much. We realized even then what kind of player he would be.”
Alcohol, which can be consumed undisturbed on a park bench, at a bus stop or even walking down the street in Moscow, cannot be sold at sporting events. Fans go through metal detectors, and are searched. But they are cunning, these fans, and find ways to get their drinks past the police. They arrive with the alcohol already in their stomachs. The aroma in the stands makes one feel tipsy just sitting there, breathing in the fumes.
Food is sold and eaten only in the lobby, where it’s plentiful, sliced salmon or fat-globuled salami on a slice of bread, tubs of popcorn, a $3.85 hot dog, a $1.60 cup of tea. Tickets go from $5 to $16 for most games, and $14 puts you high enough to see but close enough to see the players spit and with a good view of the bare-midriffed women who periodically skip onto the ice with shovels, dumping shavings into a blue plastic bucket.
Drums beat. Music played. “My heart is beating as if I’m a poor little ovechka,” went one song, ovechka being lamb in Russian. When Ovechkin scored his goal against Neftekhimik, chants of “Dee-Na-Mo” quickly turned to “Sa-Sha Sa-Sha.”
“He’s the best player in the world,” Sasha Mikheev said between periods at the Neftekhimik game. “We are lucky to have him.”
Even so, Mikheev said he didn’t care who won the game. “I play hockey myself,” he said, “So I’m not a fan. I watch it technically.”
Mikheev, a Muscovite, was part of a jovial group that included three guests who had traveled from London to watch Glasgow Celtic play Spartak Moscow the next night in soccer — which attracts far more fans here than hockey. Less than half the 8,000-seat arena was filled for the Neftekhimik game. The three men — Alastair Peebles, a construction company manager; Tom Staunton, a storage company operator; and Daniel Brodie, an aircraft engineer — have been traveling to Celtic games since they met seven years ago in a southwest London pub that shows all the games.
They would be rewarded with a 3-2 win for Celtic, the first road victory in 19 attempts at this stage of play in the Championship League.
In 2007, their travels took them to Boston, where they saw the Bruins play the Montreal Canadiens, which reminded them of the differences between the NHL and KHL.
“In Boston they encouraged you to drink as much as you possibly could,” Staunton said in awed tones as he was offered a cup of tea.
The game was over just before 10 p.m., and Dynamo fans went home happy. They sauntered in agreeable knots, families, dates, guys out with their buddies. No one was hurried.
Moscow’s metro runs until 1 a.m.