He heard every knock, every stereotype, including the most disturbing: that a flamboyant, Russian player who speaks broken English did not have the qualities to galvanize all those gritty North Americans into becoming a special team, even though the Swedish-born Nicklas Lidstrom became the first European NHL captain to hoist the Stanley Cup in 2008.
“I know some people thought this,” he says. “People look at my countryside. Because of this and because I was young, it was pretty hard for me to accept captaincy.”
The NHL’s leading goal scorer recently thought for a second, scratched his head and tugged on his tight-fitting black designer T-shirt, the one that read, “Kobe Bryant — The Black Mamba.” The Russian Machine emoted a half-smile.
“But I know 100 percent now team is on my side,” Ovechkin says. “You know, if I want to say something I’m going to say something. They’re going to understand me, which is most important thing.”
Coincidence, no, how the Great Eight gradually learning to become a great captain coincides with the on-ice renaissance of Ovechkin and his team?
The Caps host those rascally Rangers yet again as their Stanley Cup playoff series opens Thursday night, and it’s clear either we ascribe and embellish too many good qualities for athletes who win for our teams — much the same way we distort shortcomings when they play poorly and lose — or, just maybe, Ovi now gets it.
For the first time since former captain Chris Clark was traded three years ago and Ovechkin was given the captaincy at 25, his numbers and production have spiked almost exponentially. First in NHL goals, tied for third in points, he plays with a fire and a flare of old. But Ovechkin becoming more of a respected leader in his own locker room has been just as critical in some ways.
“I don’t think there’s any barrier or a problem whatsoever,” said winger Troy Brouwer, when asked if there were any language or cultural obstacles Ovechkin still has to overcome with teammates. “He makes his presence known in the dressing room. He’s vocal. He’s always talking. He demands the best out of himself and that’s all you can ask of a captain.”
In hockey, the “C” has always meant more than it does in other North American major team sports, which often have multiple captains over the course of a season or a game. While there can be as many as two alternate captains with an “A” on their jersey in the NHL, there is only one permanent captain who gets the “C” on each team. Over the course of NHL history, often that player was neither the MVP of the team nor the best skater. Sometimes he was just, well, a manly man, like Ray Bourque or Mark Messier.
But times have changed since Adam Oates, the Caps’ coach, got his first captaincy at “40 or 39, I forget.” Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog was still 21 days shy of getting out of his teens when the Avalanche made him the youngest permanent captain in league history last September. He was 11 days younger than Sidney Crosby’s appointment at 19 by the Penguins in 2007. Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim was 25 when he got the “C” on his jersey and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews was just 20 when he became a captain.
“I think that’s the product a little bit of the salaries,” Oates says. “Now you have a guy that you think is going to be your franchise-type player and he gets a 10-year deal, you pretty much named him captain right there, didn’t you?”
George McPhee didn’t name Ovechkin captain simply because the Capitals were on the hook for $124 million over 13 years, but the team’s general manager does acknowledge that it was an investment in the future more than an instant solution.
“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.