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Building Project Starts With One Stick

Such an attitude impresses the Capitals. Russian hockey emphasizes speed and technique over contact but Ovechkin on the ice often resembles a North American player in his willingness to mix it up. "I can play physical hockey," he said in Russian. "I'm friends with my body and I like to play physical."

"He has a young spirit and a fearlessness," said Nikulin. "He needs to grab the puck and keep it and always gets in the way of his opponents and spoils things for them."

The Panthers tried to draft Ovechkin when he was two days short of 18, arguing 4 leap years had passed in his lifetime. (Iha/icon Smi)

_____From The Post_____
Caps GM George McPhee states the team will not trade the No. 1 pick.
Alexander Ovechkin heads the 2004 NHL draft class.

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Or as his proud mother put it, "He never loses his fights."

Fueling his will to win, according to family and friends, is the memory of his older brother, Sergei, who first introduced him to hockey. Sergei died at 25 in a car accident when Sasha was just 10, a tragedy that scarred the young boy so much he refuses to discuss it except to say he still thinks of his brother every day, particularly out on the ice.

"They were very close," said Nikulin. "The memory of his brother is something he plays for. But he doesn't talk about it, ever."

Tatyana Ovechkina, now 54, recalled those early days after Sergei's death, when her younger son Sasha would play the role of comforter. One day during one of his hockey games, she said, "He looked up at the stands where I'm sitting and he saw my eyes were bloated with tears and he ran up to me and told me, 'Mama, don't cry.' "

For Ovechkina, having a son leave to play in America represents a quirk of family fate. She grew up in an era when Russians challenged the Americans for dominance in international sports.

She still relishes the memory of beating the U.S. basketball team at the 1976 Olympics, where her Soviet team won the gold medal, and still regrets that the United States then boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

"I was very disappointed," she recalled. "It was a big pity. The Olympics weren't the Olympics without the Americans."

But the world has changed since then and she sees no irony in her son now heading off to the United States to play for an American team in the U.S. capital and earning the sort of capitalist big bucks that were never possible in her youth.

Ovechkin will be eligible for $1.3 million a year under the rookie salary cap, although incentive clauses could push that higher. He's already taken some English lessons and is thinking about buying a home and a BMW. Right now, he has to borrow his parents' car or bum rides from friends.

Russian hockey officials would like to get a little more of the Ovechkin windfall as well. Under an international agreement that expires this year, the NHL pays a Russian team about $250,000 in compensation for a player picked in the first round of the draft, but team executives here are pushing to negotiate a new, far more lucrative contract to take advantage of a rising star like Ovechkin.

"He doesn't cost $250,000 [to train] but much more than that," said Alexei Panfilov, sports director for Dynamo Moscow, which has not had a No. 1 NHL draft pick since the fall of the Soviet Union. "I would say $2.5 million. That's a fair price for Ovechkin. Ovechkins aren't born every year. To get one Ovechkin you need to bring up 10,000 hockey players."

Ovechkin himself seems a little lost in all the discussion of high finance. He still marvels that a Moscow restaurateur who recognized him came up to his table the other day and offered him a 15 percent discount card.

He may be a millionaire in the making but he still seems like a typical Russian teenager. He spends his sparse free time watching MTV or Russia's Sport television, gyrating with friends on the two-story dance floor at Pyramid nightclub off Pushkin Square or plowing through a plate of his favorite food, macaroni and meatloaf, a Soviet-era staple.

And then there are the video games. He seems to love them almost as much as hockey. His favorite is a shoot'em-up one called Counterstrike.

Is he any good at it?

He laughs. "The best."

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