Alexander the Great?
Wednesday, October 5, 2005
A year and a half ago, before a labor dispute canceled an entire season and reduced the NHL from America's No. 4 major sports league to something even less, the Washington Capitals won the league's annual draft lottery. Seeking confirmation on how he should use the No. 1 overall choice two months later, General Manager George McPhee called Ross Mahoney, the club's director of amateur scouting. McPhee had barely started the conversation when Mahoney responded: "It's Ovechkin. It's got to be Ovechkin."
Some hockey observers considered Alexander Ovechkin the most talented prospect since Mario Lemieux made his debut for Pittsburgh in 1984. "He doesn't follow the puck," former Capital and current TV analyst Craig Laughlin said of Ovechkin, "the puck follows him ."
But until now -- in fact, until 7 o'clock tonight when the Capitals open the 2005-06 season at MCI Center against Columbus -- the talk about Ovechkin has been purely speculative: The 20-year-old who is potentially the Capitals' best all-around offensive player ever has been seen only by a few fervent friends at practice and sparse crowds at exhibition games.
He is eager to play, even if he could have made more money in Russia this season. The lockout that postponed his rookie season cost the NHL in prestige and the players in earning power because of a downsized pay scale. Yet Ovechkin was determined to make his pilgrimage to what he still considers the Promised Land.
He is coming from Moscow, where hockey is religion, to Washington, where the church of hockey is known for its empty pews.
None of this matters to him, he insisted.
"This is the best league in the world," he said, "and I feel that I should play in the best league in the world. Money is not an issue and you cannot buy happiness."
He brings a lovely look of innocence, as if hardly old enough to shave, blue-eyed with often disheveled dark hair, his leisure clothes an odd mix of colors. Importantly to the Caps, however, he brings the perfect blend of ambition and a rookie's right attitude.
"I want to win the Stanley Cup," he said in English, which he has been practicing only a year. "I want to be the best, just the best. I must work. I must learn. Help my team. Play hockey, that's all. Hockey is my life, you know. If I do not play hockey, I do not know what I do."
For the Capitals, the Stanley Cup is nowhere on the horizon. Their problems are daunting, winning back fans and simply winning games because almost all their name players have been let go and they are starting basically from scratch. The Capitals may be facing, in reality, a second silent winter.
If Ovechkin turns out to be the Capitals' top player, and he may well be right away, it could be enough to generate some interest in the team and its future. He could be that good.
He is the kind of talent that always seems to end up with the legendary clubs -- Detroit, Montreal. But with luck, a seemingly star-crossed franchise got him.