Raised Under a Gold Standard
Sunday, February 5, 2006
He has seen the medals, though they reside not on the wall of the dining room or above the mantle or in some garish trophy case at the Ovechkin home in Moscow.
"They are in the garage," Alex Ovechkin said.
Olympic golds. In the garage. Out of sight, though Ovechkin has been, and will be, reminded of them again and again in coming weeks.
"They are in a box," he said. "She doesn't want to look at them."
The medals are what Ovechkin covets, what he doesn't have yet. His mother won them for the Soviet Union a generation ago, before 20-year-old Alex was born, long before he became one of the National Hockey League's most prized talents as a Washington Capitals forward, long before he prepared to star in the Olympics on his own. Tatiana Ovechkin was a product of the Soviet athletic machine, an Olympic champion in basketball who began playing when she was 9 and eventually became president of the powerful Moscow Dynamo club that produced her.
Her son, then, is by extension a product of the same machine. "The apple," said Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, "doesn't fall far from the tree."
So when Alex Ovechkin takes to the Olympic ice in Turin, Italy, next week -- with the name of his home country, Russia, emblazoned on the front of his jersey -- he will do so not only as the Capitals' most recognizable star but as a son carrying on his mother's legacy. Or maybe outdoing it.
"If she has two," he said, "maybe I should have three."
He smiled a sly smile through the stubble that grows sporadically down his cheeks and graces the bottom of his chin. This does not seem to be a kid who would take a gold medal and stick it in a box in the garage of his new home in Arlington. This is a kid who, during his first four months in the United States and the NHL, has created highlight after highlight, 34 goals and 32 assists for the lowly Capitals. He has enjoyed the success immensely.
"Look at how much fun he has," Leonsis said, beaming.
He is humble about it, says all the right things and, by all accounts, just wants to win. But watch him some night at MCI Center. Watch him in the seconds after he leaves a defenseman jelly-legged at the blueline. As the crowd murmurs about the latest Ovechkin moment, he will lean against the boards near the Capitals bench and sneak a peak up to the replay screen hanging above the ice, greatness catching a glimpse of greatness as if to prove to himself that yes, this is really happening.
|"My mother, she is a great sportsman," says the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, left. "She taught me so much. How to play. How to play hard. How to win,"|
He is representing not only his country, but his family.
"We're excited to share the whole experience with him," Leonsis said. "Yes, it gets our name out internationally, but that's not the point. With this kid, whatever's good for Alex is good for the Washington Capitals. He's made that much of an impact in just this amount of time."
'He's Really Driven'
The impact on the ice is easiest to measure, because the entire feeling of MCI Center changes when Ovechkin takes a shift. It ratchets up still another notch when he has the puck. Last month, with the Capitals down by a goal in the waning minutes of a home game against Boston, Ovechkin found himself on the left wing, charging the net for one of the few times all night. "I always want the puck," he said afterward.
Yet these are the moments when games are determined, when Ovechkin seems to want the puck enough that he wills it to himself. Here he was on an otherwise quiet night, when he had been held to one shot by Bruins winger P.J. Axelsson, with a chance to change the game.
"He makes those times come to him," Capitals General Manager George McPhee said. "He comes to them."
This is not something that just happened upon Ovechkin's arrival in the NHL. When the Capitals first scouted him a few years ago in the world junior championships, they noticed this knack, this way he had of creating opportunities. It wasn't just that he would slam himself into the corners to retrieve a puck, a far cry from some elite scorers who expect teammates to protect them. "He'll pay the price," McPhee said.
That helped, of course. But other, less tangible characteristics stood out, and they're exactly the kind of traits that could make Ovechkin one of the stars of the Olympics. McPhee remembers a game in which Russia, which had a poor tournament, was trailing by a few goals, the outcome long since decided. Yet here came Ovechkin over the boards, seemingly salivating for each shift.
"He wasn't hoping the puck was going to come to him," McPhee said. "There's a difference between hoping it and wanting it and making it happen. He's been that way for us. He just doesn't stop. He is quite an engine out on the ice. He's really driven."
So it was as he barreled in on Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, the clock ticking away. Ovechkin held the Capitals' last, best chance on his stick. "You can tell," Thomas said afterward, "that he wants to be the hero."
Thomas had prepared for this kind of moment, one-on-one with a rising rocket of a star, through eight years playing largely in the minors and overseas. He tried his best, he said, to take away as much of the net as possible because he was "95 percent sure" Ovechkin would shoot.
But in these moments, goaltenders aren't in control, even as Ovechkin learns the NHL game and adjusts to life in the United States. Ovechkin dictates the pace, the action, the decision-making of others -- all in a blink. In this instance, he had Bruins defenseman David Tanabe in front of him, a hindrance for most players. Ovechkin, though, used Tanabe as a screen, hiding the puck behind the defenseman to the point where Thomas couldn't see it.
"I lost him," Thomas said, and, in another breath described what that feels like in one word: scary. "It isn't like he gives away the exact time he's going to shoot, like some players do," Thomas said. "And he has a really quick release."
So Thomas did all he could, which wasn't much. He slid to his right, cutting down the angle. Ovechkin, as Thomas had predicted, fired. Thomas didn't know if he actually saw the puck whiz by his head. Thankfully, for him and the Bruins, he heard it a nanosecond later, clanging off the post. An inch more to the right, and Ovechkin would have been a hero again. Instead, maybe 20 minutes later, he stood in the Capitals' dressing room wearing a plush black Capitals bathrobe, open enough at the neck to expose a gold chain adorned with two charms, his own number "8" and a crucifix.
"This was not our day," he said slowly, and then he let out a long, low sigh.
The disappointment in those times of failure, perceived or real, can be etched in Ovechkin's face. Losing is not what he prepared himself for, not what Tatiana and Mikhail, his father and a former professional soccer player, foresaw for him as they raised him on up through the Moscow Dynamo program.
"My mother," Alex said, "she is a great sportsman. She taught me so much. How to play. How to play hard. How to win."
Tatiana Ovechkin has the hardened look of the athlete she was, and she speaks brusquely and seemingly without emotion when asked about her own career, not to mention that of her son. "I am very proud of Alex," she said recently through an interpreter, but her eyes stared straight ahead as the words passed her lips, painted with bright red lipstick.
"They take their sports very, very seriously," McPhee said of the Ovechkin family. He and Leonsis got to know the entire family earlier this season, when Tatiana and Mikhail came to Washington to help with Alex's adjustment. Tatiana made her son breakfast in the morning and provided the comfort of home so many miles away.
It is clear, members of the Capitals organization say, that the Ovechkins taught Alex more than athletic skill, more than discipline and fitness and diligence. Leonsis hosted a cookout prior to the season in which his family joined McPhee's family and the Ovechkins, a kind of welcome-to-your-new-life get-together. As things were winding down, Leonsis looked across the yard. There was Alex, cleaning up the paper plates and napkins.
"That's the kind of kid he is," Leonsis said. "And that's the kind of family he comes from."
That kind of willingness to do the things other stars wouldn't think of has helped, to a large degree, his ability to fit in with the Capitals, a team with no other marquee players, save perhaps goalie Olie Kolzig. Ovechkin is at the center of so many of the Capitals' promotions at MCI Center, not to mention all of the buzz about the team, that it would be easy for veterans to chafe at all the attention. The Capitals don't.
"The thing I keep saying that people don't see is how he is off the ice," said Kolzig, who will play for Germany at Turin. "He wants to be part of the team. He wants to learn the American way of life. Typically, the Europeans come over, and for the first year, they're kind of standoffish. It's a new culture, a new language. They kind of stand back a little bit and take it in from a distance. He dives right in and wants to be a part of everything."
That means not only filling the dressing room with music to make it sound, Kolzig said, "like a Moscow nightclub." It means working every shift in games, working every shift in practice. It means pumping his fist when he scores a goal, but patting teammates on the back when they do the same.
"I know about team, and I care about team," Ovechkin said. "I think my parents teach me that from the start."
It is apparent in how Ovechkin interacts with his teammates, how they interact with him. He is the rookie and the star, yet they joke with him. After practice one day last month, Ovechkin quietly pulled out a plastic shopping bag filled with hockey pucks adorned with his face on one side. Quickly, as if to do it before anyone noticed, he whipped out a gold marker and scribbled his autograph on each puck, one after the other. He was done before his teammates realized what had happened, an indication of the grace with which Kolzig said he carries himself.
"They've trained and they've taught Alex well," McPhee said of the Ovechkins. "It's interesting, because he's come here and sort of made our team a team based on all those intangibles that are important -- the respect for the coaches and his teammates, the respect for the game, the preparation for the game."
With the Soviet basketball team, Tatiana Ovechkin learned how to fit in on an immensely talented team in which the primary objective was to feed the ball to 7-foot-2 center Juliana Semenova and let her score. The plan worked beautifully, and the Soviets won the first women's Olympic tournament easily in 1976, including a 112-77 thrashing of the United States in the semifinals, a game in which Tatiana scored 10 points and had six assists. Four years later, with the United States boycotting the Moscow games, the Soviets won again.
"To win in the Olympics," Tatiana said, "is the biggest reward for any athlete."
"I've seen her play," Alex said, thinking about old videotapes of those Montreal Games. "She was fast. Fast ." And he smiled.
It is, over the next few weeks, exactly how Ovechkin and his Russian teammates will play hockey, fast and fearless. Ovechkin, who shoots right-handed but plays on the left wing, could wind up on a line centered by Detroit Red Wings magician Pavel Datsyuk. In any case, he will be surrounded by talent that far surpasses that on the Capitals, and the Olympics game is played in a larger rink, opening up the play and putting a premium on skill and skating.
"It'll be perfect for him," said Axelsson immediately after spending a night as Ovechkin's shadow. "He's so explosive on the ice, like a Ferrari out there. The bigger ice is only going to make him better."
That is Ovechkin's hope not only for himself, but for his family. His parents are scheduled to travel to Turin should the Russians advance through a very difficult field in what could be a thrilling tournament. Leonsis will go as well, as will McPhee.
And maybe, before play begins on Feb. 15, Ovechkin will slide in the old tape he has of the Russians' loss in the 1998 gold medal game, a 1-0 shutout to goaltender Dominik Hasek and the Czech Republic. He was 12. "It was a long time ago," Ovechkin said, "but I remember."
He remembers that loss. He remembers the Americans' upset victory over Russia in the 2002 Olympic semifinals. He knows about his mother's victories. Now, he gets a chance to make his own international impression.
"He's going to make an impact," Leonsis said. "You watch."
And then the only thing left would be to determine where to keep his medal.