MOSCOW -- His mother swears this story is true: When Alexander Ovechkin was a 2-year-old toddler, she brought him to a toy store. Those were the dwindling days of the Soviet Union, when stores didn't have as much as today. But they had toy hockey sticks and they had toy helmets and little Sasha, as he is called, waddled right over to them and wouldn't let go.
Don't believe it? "We have a picture with him wearing tights and holding a hockey stick," his mother, Tatyana, insists.
The Panthers tried to draft Ovechkin when he was two days short of 18, arguing 4 leap years had passed in his lifetime.
Sixteen years later, Sasha Ovechkin still won't let go of the hockey stick -- and should any opponent make the mistake of letting him get the puck he won't let go of that either. The little boy from the Soviet toy store has grown up into the slap-shot sensation of Russian hockey and the top prospect in the world. If all goes according to plan, the Washington Capitals will make him the No. 1 pick today in the NHL draft.
What they will get in Ovechkin will be a 6-foot-2, 212-pound forward who, according to the scouting reports, represents the "complete package." He's big and quick and doesn't flinch from physical play. He's a hustler with a devastating stick and equally effective on defense. Some gush that he may be the second coming of Mario Lemieux.
"They ask him all the time, 'What are your strong points?' " said Sergei Isakov, a family friend and Russian representative for Ovechkin's agent. "Everything," Isakov answered with a laugh. "For today, he's one of the best players for his age and everyone recognizes that in two years he'll be an NHL star."
People have been telling Ovechkin that for so long that he betrays no worries about taking on the best the NHL has to offer. "What's scary about that?" he asked after practice one day recently at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium. "If you're scared, you shouldn't even go out on the rink."
With just the barest peach fuzz on his 18-year-old chin and a few stubborn pimples left on his ruddy cheeks, Ovechkin somehow does not sound cocky when he says that, only determined. "I have to be self-confident. Let the other guys be worried."
That's Tatyana Ovechkina's son. Growing up in a simple, two-bedroom flat on the 10th floor of a plain Soviet-era apartment building in northwestern Moscow, Sasha inherited a zeal for competition. His mother was a two-time Olympic basketball champion, first in 1976, then in 1980, and today coaches the Dynamo Moscow women's basketball team. His father, Mikhail, once played professional soccer.
"They had a huge influence on him," said Ilya Nikulin, 22, a friend and fellow hockey player. "They would always push him forward and stand next to him constantly. . . . He wants very much to live up to their legacy."
When he was a child, they would always push him out the door to go play on nearby soccer fields or basketball courts. "Almost every day we were running around, playing soccer, playing all sorts of sports," recalled Misha Batanov, 18, a childhood friend. "He doesn't need to prove anything or follow anyone's footsteps. He's going to be a champion."
By the time Sasha was 8, he was enrolled in hockey school. By 10, he was collecting hockey player cards and dreaming of the NHL. By 16, he was playing for Dynamo Moscow's professional hockey team.
By 17, he had so impressed the foreign scouts that the Florida Panthers tried unsuccessfully to draft him when he was still two days short of turning 18 by the NHL eligibility deadline, arguing that he qualified because four leap years had passed during his lifetime.
Last season with Dynamo, Ovechkin scored a team-high 13 goals in 53 games in Russia's Super League and was credited with 10 assists as well. Last month, he was named to Russia's 26-member World Cup of Hockey squad.
Anyone who doubts his desire should just ask him about the upcoming World Cup championship. "We'll win," he predicted simply, leaving no room for doubt.