“His first year, everything was new and exciting. The only people he really knew were the guys on the team,” Halpern said. “He’s older now and, with that, the biggest thing is carrying the weight of the franchise, the playoff successes and failures, and ultimately, how the team does.”
‘Not a disco right now’
Ovechkin is behind a fence now. He’d lived in the same Arlington home since his rookie season, right off the street, visible to any fan who drove by. In January, he purchased a $4.2 million, 11,000-square foot home in McLean. It’s situated in a gated community, a barrier between himself — the guy who was the life of the party — and the rest of the world. Those who know him well say mounting criticism, mostly from hockey observers outside Washington, has affected him.
“He reads message boards. He knows what people say about him. He’s very cognizant of that stuff,” said Nate Ewell, the team’s former public relations director who was often at a young Ovechkin’s side. “I think maybe it’s made him withdraw a little bit in the public realm. I don’t think behind closed doors it changes anything.”
The shift in demeanor has been on display all season. The same television announcers who used to criticize his brash, outgoing personality now ask why Ovechkin doesn’t appear to be having fun.
“I think part of it is he’s feeling a little not as loved as he used to be,” said Olie Kolzig, the longtime Capitals goaltender, asked last month about what ails Ovechkin.
The NHL’s all-star game had once served as Ovechkin’s coming-out party. It’s where he donned costume props and wowed the hockey world. This year, he skipped the festivities, upset at yet another league-mandated suspension, and retreated to South Florida for vacation. When he returned, his hair was cut shorter, and he appeared more determined. In the six weeks that followed, though, the team’s overall play has yet to improve; the Caps are 8-9-3 since the break.
At his core, teammates say Ovechkin seems essentially the same good-natured guy, but there are indisputable differences. “A little bit more quiet than he was before,” defenseman Karl Alzner said.
Ovechkin still has his good nights, and in the middle of one last month he told Comcast SportsNet broadcaster Al Koken during an in-game interview: “It’s not a disco right now. It’s a very serious moment for our team.” Ovechkin scored a goal in the game and the Caps snapped a three-game losing streak. After the game, he expanded: “Lots of people said, we have to have fun. Yeah, we have to have fun. But have fun — it’s not like laughing and it’s not joking around. It’s serious — serious fun, you know. You have to be concentrating and when you have opportunity to smile, you smile. But most of the time in the locker room, it’s very serious.”