“We knew it would take some time for Alex to grow into it,” McPhee says. “But we were prepared to give him that time.” For all the unfair criticism Ovechkin took during down times, McPhee said he was leading in ways people never fully grasped.
“He sheltered a lot of his teammates at times,” he said. “He absorbed the brunt of whatever was coming our way, putting himself out in front. Not only that, but Alex was always in demand.”
Whatever sentiment existed regarding whether Ovechkin should be stripped of his captaincy so he could have only the burden of playing well never made headway with management. “He was our man, all the way,” McPhee said.
Ovechkin admits it took time to understand a captain’s role, and how a youngster who grew up in the organization with Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green was supposed to lead.
“Sometimes I was so shy to say something when I was younger,” he says. “But right now I’m 27 and next year I’m going to be 28 and it’s time to grow up for me. The captaincy, I know Backie going to support me, Greenie going to support me, others going to support me. I work hard at communication now because I know if they don’t understand me, it can go the other way.”
Oates blows up the notion that you have to be loud and demonstrative off the ice to lead, saying the fact Ovechkin is perceived as quiet is “irrelevant.” So what, Oates says; Steve Yzerman, Scott Stevens, Dale Hunter and Bourque were also quiet, effective captains he played with.
“He plays 25 minutes a night and pulls the team along,” Oates said of Ovechkin. “I would say in my generation Mark Messier might go down as the best leader. But he had three years in Vancouver that people forgot he was there. So what happened? He stopped leading all those years?
“At the end of the day, it’s a guy who shows up for work every day and handles the stress and is a good solid citizen.”
As the puck drops on his sixth NHL postseason, Ovechkin says he has learned and grown.
“The pressure is always there, it doesn’t matter if I’m bad or I’m good,” he says. “Critics always going to be on one side and critics on the other side. Basically, there are many critics.
“I’m grown man,” he adds. “I’m not like anymore 20-year-old guy who listen to everybody and what fan says every day — to take all the pressure from me. I’m growing up. The teammate and coaches is the most important people I want to hear critical [things from].”
Asked the real reason behind his resurgence and the newfound respect he feels as a bona fide NHL captain, Ovechkin’s missing-tooth smile emerges.
“What I do differently? Puck goes in.”
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.