He came here as a 19-year-old who spoke little English but was more than fluent in hockey, capturing the imagination of the hockey world and the hearts of Washington. His rise to the top of the NHL was a fast one, and his stumble back to earth a curious one.
Not only are the Capitals teetering on the edge of the playoff race, but the 26-year old Ovechkin is suffering through the worst statistical season of his career. In 2009, he signed the richest contract in NHL history, and he’s slated to earn $9 million this season. He enters the season’s final four weeks tied for 51st in the league in points and tied for 19th in goals. A player who four times topped 100 points in his career and scored 65 goals just four seasons ago is on pace to finish the season with 62 points and 33 goals.
What fans see on the ice these days is a far cry from the player who wowed the hockey establishment not long ago. Interviews with nearly two dozen people around the Capitals organization and around the NHL — some of whom insisted on anonymity so they could speak candidly — reveal a portrait of a puck protagonist seemingly stripped from Russian literature: misunderstood, at times brooding, downcast and withdrawn — yet a player who most believe is still filled with talent, potential and an infectious personality.
The explanations vary and the probing spotlight shifts from the rotating cast of his inner circle to his waning confidence, his work ethic, and strategy adjustments from opposing coaches.
“The game has changed since Alex entered the league, and we are looking for him to be a better all-around player,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said in an e-mail. “We want him to adapt his game to be productive within the framework of our team, not necessarily in comparison with others in the NHL.”
The season has been one marked by drama and pitfalls: Ovechkin caught on camera cursing about former coach Bruce Boudreau, the left winger slapped with a third career suspension, a questionable decision to skip the All-Star Game, a dust-up with a teammate at practice and scoreless stretches he never experienced as a young player. But even more, the season came to symbolize pronounced change: Ovechkin was no longer the gap-toothed, carefree superstar. Instead, he takes the ice often visibly pained by everything that hangs above him.
“I don’t think the pressure is affecting his play but it affects his personality. . . . He definitely seems more . . . ” teammate Jeff Halpern paused, “he’s not the happy-go-lucky kid anymore.”
Halpern was the Capitals’ captain in 2005-06, Ovechkin’s rookie season. He rejoined Washington last fall, reuniting with Ovechkin and hoping for a late-career championship. Six years older, Ovechkin was different. Similarly, the Capitals, their rabid fan base and the expectations surrounding the team had changed and evolved.
“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.”
A calling card from his best seasons was an elated Ovechkin throwing himself into the glass to celebrate a goal. Through his first 62 games this season, Ovechkin had yet to do it once — until his overtime game-winner Thursday, when he snapped the team’s three-game slide and excitedly hurled his body into the boards.
“Alex puts his worth into whether he scores or not,” said one person with knowledge of the situation. “He has no confidence right now, and it’s because he bases his worth on whether he’s scoring or not.”
Players from losing teams don’t necessarily celebrate outwardly. But inside the Capitals’ locker room, Ovechkin is different. It’s apparent during the limited period in which reporters are around him, and players say they notice it, too, behind closed doors.
“With guys like that, you can obviously tell if they’re unhappy. . . . He keeps to himself a little bit more,” teammate Troy Brouwer said. “He’s not quite as quirky around the dressing room. He wants to score goals.”
Said defenseman Mike Green: “He seems more quiet, not as outgoing maybe as he used to be. Maybe he’s just trying to be more focused, I don’t know.”
The Capitals opted to anoint Ovechkin as captain in January 2010, when the Russian-born sharpshooter was 24 years old. Teammates say Ovechkin isn’t a vocal leader, but they acknowledge he doesn’t have to be.
“Ovi is a guy we expect to lead by example, to be the identity of the team,” Halpern said. “You expect him to play with that rambunctious and powerful style that the whole city fell in love with.
“That’s the one thing about wearing a letter, or being a veteran player, is you can’t let your game affect what’s best for the team. We still look to Ovi to be the guy to lead us to these wins. If he’s frustrated one day, if he’s happy one day, that’s the look of the team.”
Growing up, apart
In 2007, the Capitals launched a “Young Guns” marketing campaign around Ovechkin, Green, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom. On and off the ice, the group was tight-knit, driving to games together, hanging out away from the rink. A lot has changed since.
Ovechkin has “been hanging out with a whole new set of people,” said one person with knowledge of the locker-room dynamics. Among teammates, Ovechkin remains closest to Semin, a fellow Russian. “I don’t know, things have changed. They don’t hang out as much any more and it’s caused an uncomfortable situation within the team now, the chemistry with the guys. There’s no more ‘Young Guns,’ or whatever you guys in the media called it.”
The players are still friendly, but they’ve all grown away from the ice. Their relationships are now largely limited to the workplace.
“We used to hang out every day. Now, everybody has their own thing going on,” Green said. “We’ve grown up a bit.”
Ovechkin’s entire inner circle has turned over in recent years. When he was at his peak, his agent was Don Meehan, powerful and respected in hockey circles, and Konstantin Selinevich, a local businessman, handled his off-ice ventures. Dmitry Kapitonov, a former Olympic distance runner, oversaw his training. His agency arranged for Susanna Goruveyn to serve as his personal assistant and interpreter.
They’re all gone. In 2006, he parted ways with his agent. In 2009 he dumped Selinevich and partnered with IMG for his off-ice ventures. He parted ways with Kapitonov prior to the 2010-11 season.
When you ask those whom Ovechkin trusts most, the name most likely to come up first is Tatiana Ovechkin, his mother, a former athlete herself who lost another son at an early age. Ovechkin and his mother cling tightly to one another, and both the player’s parents shuttle back and forth from Russia to Washington. Ovechkin still spends much of his offseasons in Moscow. Those who know Ovechkin say his mother exerts considerable influence — good and bad — on her son’s life.
“That’s his biggest problem — his mom,” said a person familiar with the situation. “She did what she did for Alex. She played a huge part in his growth, in his career. But it went too far. I understand it’s family, I understand they’re very close — it’s not that. The question is: Is he ever going to grow up? I’m not only talking about hockey. She’s in his life in many other areas — relationships with girls, with friends, with everyone. It’s bizarre.”
Tatiana handled the bulk of his last contract negotiation, and she netted her son a 13-year contract worth $124 million, tying together the franchise and the star through the 2020-21 season. The big contract, though, has also brought increased responsibility and scrutiny.
Some close to the team suggest the family’s focus on money has put Ovechkin in a class all his own in the Capitals locker room. “No matter how much money the family earned, they were always, ‘It’s not enough, not enough,’ ” said one person familiar with the family.
The team’s treatment of Ovechkin might also have alienated some of those who were around for his meteoric rise — creating some fracturing within the locker room. Whatever the case, the so-called “Young Guns” aren’t as close as they once were.
“Back in the day, it used to be everyone went out together, everyone hung out together, everyone went to lunch together, everyone went to dinner together. Now, it’s Semin and Ovi — and everyone else,” said a person familiar with the locker room. “Not everybody has to be best friends, but when things go bad or aren’t going as well as they used to, then there has to be some sort of trust in each other.”
An Olympic letdown
There have been no shortage of theories posited to explain Ovechkin’s sharp fall. But one is heard more than others, and it stretches back to 2010.
At the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, NBC broadcaster Pierre McGuire was stationed between the teams’ benches during the quarterfinal game between Russia and Canada, so he saw the carnage up close. When it was over the Canadians had routed the Russians, 7-3.
“I have never been part of a game as a player, coach or broadcaster, where one team got so thoroughly beat down,” McGuire said. “I’ve never seen that before. It was really something to behold. You can understand why some guys might have dented psyches after that.”
Perhaps no player suffered as much as Ovechkin, who carried his country’s hopes and repeatedly referred to the Olympics as a dream. His mother won two gold medals as an Olympic basketball player, and Ovechkin was heavily invested in Vancouver, mindful that in 2014 Russia will host the Winter Games at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
“It broke down a lot of what the Russians are about,” McGuire said. “It forced them to wonder about what they were as a hockey country and what they were really like as players.”
Few were the same. While Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin has elevated his play and a couple of others might be playing at a similar level, most of the rest — especially Ovechkin and Semin — have shown declines.
“It wasn’t easy for the country, the whole team,” said the Montreal Canadiens’ Andrei Markov, Ovechkin’s teammate in Vancouver who’s since battled injuries and has appeared in just seven games the past two seasons.
Ovechkin returned to Washington and his parents flew from Moscow to console him. “It’s between me and my son what I said to him back then,” Tatiana told a reporter from Sovetsky Sport that spring. “It’s hard to revive him after that loss.”
To compound matters, Ovechkin suffered two more blows shortly afterward that General Manager George McPhee said further shook his confidence. In March 2010, he was handed a two-game suspension for an aggressive hit that broke the collarbone of Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell.
When Ovechkin returned from the suspension, he seemed to have lost some of his explosiveness. “He was playing like he was worried about hurting people,” Boudreau said in 2010. “To get him to be his best, he’s got to play the way he can play.”
The Capitals finished that season with the league’s best regular season record but were ousted in the first round of the playoffs. Ovechkin had five goals and five assists in the seven-game series, but many around the league now credit Montreal and its coaches for devising the blueprint on defending Ovechkin.
Whether it was the Olympics, the suspension or the early playoff exit — or most likely, a combination of the three — when he took the ice the following season, Ovechkin was different.
The league adjusts
“Ithink the mental part of Alex’s game is different now,” ESPN’s Barry Melrose said. “Maybe he is trying to concentrate on the defensive side of the puck more. I’m a big believer that you go and let the player play to his strength. I think Washington was a much better team when Alex was scoring 50 goals a year than they are now when he’s scoring 30 goals.”
No one doubts they were winning more games. Although Ovechkin shows flashes of his former high-scoring self, analysts lay out a laundry list of physical and strategic changes that also have impacted his play.
Teams are using an added player to eliminate his cutback move. Ovechkin’s two-step burst has slowed. His overall speed isn’t the same. He doesn’t shoot as much. He doesn’t have the right players around him.
Retired forward Bobby Holik played 18 years in the NHL and faced Ovechkin a total of 25 times. He watches now and sees a league that has changed and a player who hasn’t.
“He does the same things, but it works a lot less,” said Holik, who retired in 2009. “You have to evolve as a player. He still plays hard, but other teams know what to do now.”
This season, the Capitals have been hurt by the absence of Backstrom, who suffered a concussion on Jan. 3 and has yet to return. No one has felt it more than Ovechkin.
Without Backstrom on the ice, Ovechkin is left with players he doesn’t trust as much. He tries to do too much — and more often than not, he instead accomplishes little. “He’s got to work so hard to get it,” said Eddie Olcyzk, an NBC analyst. “It’s a state of just working so hard to get to that point, he’s got nothing left for that particular shift.”
The Capitals’ change to a more defensive-oriented philosophy, which began last season, did not take advantage of Ovechkin’s strengths. Instead, it might have limited them. Since he first put on a pair of skates, Ovechkin has been a shoot-first, run-and-gun player. This year under new Coach Dale Hunter, he’s still asked to adjust his style and not rely solely on instinct.
Those close to the team say as the losses have mounted, Ovechkin has internalized the pressure. The less he scores, the more frustrated he becomes — and the harder goals are to come by. The frustration has led to what some say is more selfish play on Ovechkin’s part — creating friction within the locker room.
“Ovi plays his own style and isn’t as focused on the team,” said one person familiar with the situation. “He doesn’t try to pass to anybody. That affects a lot of people. He doesn’t play any position. If he wants to play on the right wing, he plays on the right wing. If he wants to play on the left wing, he plays on the left wing.”
A double standard?
An even bigger complaint for some involves questions about Ovechkin’s work ethic.
During a recent practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, someone accidentally flipped the light switch and the Capitals were all momentarily in the dark. Ovechkin took a puck near the blue line, skated full-speed and shot wide.
Not long after, he stepped off the ice for the day. Like most days, he was the first player in the locker room. Several of his teammates were still practicing long after Ovechkin had showered and changed.
It’s not a new routine — Ovechkin was often the first finished during his best seasons — but those close to the team say it’s an example of why Ovechkin’s game hasn’t evolved: He hasn’t put in the work to improve.
When Kolzig spoke up last month, he said what many around the team had whispered about for years. “For Alex, it’s a work ethic,” said the former goaltender, who played alongside Ovechkin for three seasons. “He just has to get back to being the way he was in his younger days and maybe not get wrapped up too much in the rock-star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.”
McPhee said Ovechkin didn’t necessarily need a specific warning. But it didn’t hurt.
“Every once in a while you need someone who’s going to say, listen, you need to compete harder here in practice,” he said. “The status that he has — a lot of celebrities — it can be unhealthy. We’re not afraid to tell anyone that what makes you great is keeping focused and you have to have some people that aren’t the ‘yes men’ in your life.”
Still, those close to the team have been frustrated at times with what they see as the star treatment of the Capitals’ star player.
“No one holds him accountable,” said one person familiar with the situation. “If [a player] is out and he’s eating dinner at 9 o’clock, everyone’s like, ‘He’s out drinking and getting hammered.’ . . . But Ovechkin, he’s out till 12, it’s cool. ‘Ovechkin is hanging with the small people and he’s in the community.’ . . . He’s at rock concerts until 1 in the morning and he’s wearing his Caps T-shirt, then he’s cool because he’s hanging out with everybody. Anyone else on the team does that, then it’s like, ‘Oh my God, they don’t care about hockey.’ That kills everyone’s mood. . . . Everyone is like, there’s a double standard.”
In a break from recent years, people in the organization are starting to speak a bit more publicly about Ovechkin’s practice habits and faults. McPhee, who drafted Ovechkin with the first overall pick in 2004, said Ovechkin’s weight has escalated on an annual basis, going from 218 pounds to 242 pounds in five seasons. But he said the change wasn’t a case of Ovechkin reporting to training camp out of shape.
“Alex came in heavier, expecting that it’d make him more physical — and he was — and better. But he wasn’t better,” McPhee said. “He understands that now.”
McPhee said Ovechkin currently weighs 224 pounds, which the team feels allows him to play fast and physical.
While the reports and rumors of Ovechkin partying around Washington are fewer than years past, the team is still waiting for him to better channel that excess energy into hockey. To improve, many believe the Capitals’ star has to work harder.
“It’s tough to keep your head screwed on straight when you’re a young man and you’re being paid millions of dollars to play a sport you grew up playing for free,” McGuire said. “The life is really intoxicating. You have to really be careful and work hard to stay grounded. Sometimes that’s an organizational thing, sometimes that’s a family thing, sometimes it’s just having good friends around you. I don’t think any young player can go at it alone. I think everybody needs to be helped — almost insulated because it is not easy. It’s an amazingly privileged life. It really is.”
Hope for renewed greatness
Despite the sagging numbers, to see Ovechkin perform up close is still to witness a Russian ballet of bottled-up energy, equal parts beauty and fury. While the hockey experts debate the root of his problems and the Capitals’ coaches search desperately for a remedy, many around the sport aren’t ready to count him out.
Ovechkin may be far down the league’s list of leading scorers, but he still has his moments. While team officials don’t feel his rough-and-tumble style has impacted his body, Ovechkin is hardly the first prolific scorer to hit a wall. Of the league’s top 10 all-time single-season goal scorers, only Brett Hull and Phil Esposito posted their best seasons after 25 years of age.
There’s probably no quick-fix but analysts seem to agree: For Ovechkin to again be a top scorer, he needs to shoot more.
“Throughout the locker room, it was pretty contagious, guys telling him, ‘Shoot the puck, shoot the puck, shoot the puck,’ ” teammate Matt Hendricks said following a recent game. “When he’s shooting pucks, it’s hard for goalies to make saves.”
It’s one thing to say shoot and another to do it. The Capitals’ system calls for Ovechkin to forecheck, to shoot when he has the right opportunity.
“The league has adjusted to Ovi,” McPhee said. “Now it’s his turn to adjust.” But McPhee acknowledges the team’s new system goes against everything Ovechkin has learned about hockey and it’s been a slow adjustment period.
In theory, Ovechkin says he knows what he needs to do.
“If you play with a system and all five guys on the ice do the same job, it’s going to work,” Ovechkin said. “If one guy does a different job, it’s not going to work.”
“If I have opportunity to shoot, of course, I’m going to shoot the puck. Most of the time, sometimes, you can see the guy’s in the shooting lane, and one guy is open. So sometimes it’s better to find my partner.”
Ovechkin isn’t particularly reflective about his plight — not to teammates, Capitals officials or reporters. He has a thick brow and his dissatisfaction can be evident, regardless of how he chooses to frame his struggles.
“I don’t think it’s frustration,” Ovechkin said following a recent practice. “It’s just a period of time when you try hard, but you can’t win the game. Again, it’s not over yet.”