“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.
‘He shoots a lot’
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.