An earlier version of this column incorrectly indicated that Nikolai Khabibulin, Alexei Zhitnik and Alexei Zhamnov are on the Russian Olympic hockey team. All three are injured. This version has been corrected.
Ovechkin's Russian Company
TURIN, Italy -- They have a saying in Russia when it comes to their young hockey phenoms: "Doverai no proverai." Trust but verify. Let's see the results first.
It runs counter to American groupthink, in which that Alex Ovechkin is already hailed as maybe the greatest Russian player ever in just his maiden season with the Washington Capitals. What if I told you Alexander the Great is not even the best player in his dorm room at the athletes' village? That his Russian teammate, roommate and good friend Evgeni Malkin may be better?
The puckheads know who Malkin is, and the non-hockey crowd will find out soon about the Pittsburgh Penguins' No. 2 pick in the NHL's 2004 entry draft. Malkin is a 19-year-old multifaceted center in Russia's elite league, and he is expected to play for Pittsburgh next season.
"Alex is very talented, for sure, but who knows how it goes?" said Alexander Kuzmak, an NHL commentator in Moscow who is serving as the Russian team's press officer in Turin. "But in Russia, Malkin is considered even more talented than Ovechkin. He's not just scorer. He can create the play. He can do everything.
"But even in this case, who knows what Malkin will be in many years?"
Let's see the results first.
It is a good bit to digest as the Russian team went through its first full practice together at the Turin Exposition complex Tuesday night, when Ovechkin, 20, took the ice with some of his country's greatest stars. He did not look out of place, but he and Malkin had this look of wonder as they skittered gracefully up the ice, as if in awe they had been picked for their country's most exclusive team.
Alex Kovalev on their right, Alexei Yashin on their left. Swoosh! There goes Sergei Gonchar and four-time Olympian Darius Kasparaitis.
A Big Red Dream Team, and they were a part of it.
Ovechkin needs this kind of humility. No, it hasn't gone to his head yet. But when one of his veteran Capitals teammates was asked at a bar after a recent game whether he saw a little of a young Allen Iverson in Ovechkin -- an unbelievably gifted player who fell in love with his own ability while forgetting to include others sometimes -- he replied, "I think that might be a fair assessment."
He wasn't trashing Ovechkin; he was merely saying he will grow as a player in time and be more interested in consistently making the right play instead of occasionally making the great play, a trait all young players learn. Don't get caught up in who you are today because tomorrow is not a given in this sport. Any gifted Russian on his way to being the next Great One can tell you that.
"[Ovechkin] is really good," Pavel Bure began, "for his age."
Ovechkin was named the NHL's offensive player of the month and rookie of the month for January, becoming the third player in league history to receive both awards at the same time. That may be a harbinger of a Hall of Fame future. Or not.
Bure used to be known as the "The Russian Rocket." So swift with his stick, so fast on his skates, he could scoot through any nook and cranny and blast the puck toward the net. Five times he scored more than 50 goals in a season and he scored 60 in back-to-back seasons in the early-to-mid 1990s. In 1994 he led a .500 Vancouver team to the Stanley Cup finals against the New York Rangers. Bure's teen-idol features -- he looked like a young Brad Pitt at the time -- did not hurt his popularity.
Young girls scrawled messages on the back of Bure's dusty Mercedes in the Canucks' team garage. "Valerie©Pavel." It was Pavelmania. All Bure, all the time.
Until seven surgeries later. He was done at age 32, his body unable to go on competitively. Hence, his reality check when it comes to Ovechkin.
"He don't have too much help now in Washington, that's the problem," Bure said. "You don't know what he could be like on a very good team, what kind of role he would take. But for what he is doing, he is doing very, very well."
Don't get me wrong. Ovechkin is considered very special in Russia. The Moscow newspaper Sport Express asked Vladimir Krikunov, Russia's head coach, whether he thought Ovechkin's recent groin injury could hamper his chances at the Winter Games. "I hope he doesn't rush anything now, so that he is fully healed by mid-February," Krikunov said. "God can't leave Alexander without the Olympics!"
I saw Ovechkin play a month ago at MCI Center and was bedazzled, like everyone else in the stands. The kid placed the puck on his teammates' stick in mid-stride. The building rose with anticipation every time he had a breakaway, the way NBA arenas rose when Michael Jordan stole the ball at midcourt. I kept waiting for the other team to send out their enforcer to rough the kid up, but that player never came.
I thought it was because of the NHL's new rules allowing for more scoring and less thuggery. But Bure and others believe it for another reason: "He is big. I don't think many players want to try to do something to someone that big and that fast," Bure said of Ovechkin, who stands 6 feet 2 and weighs 212 pounds. "This is just my feeling."
He's got the gifts. Now he's just he needs time to nurture and develop them. It also cannot be bad for his humility to be rooming with Malkin. "They meet each other after one year of being away in different leagues," Kuzmak said. "Alex is enjoying himself very much with his teammates. It is nice reunion."
I mentioned to Kuzmak how the future of the NHL could be couped up in one small room in Turin.
"Unfortunately, all the best Russian players are playing in America, so you are right, yes," he said. Laughing, he added, "But I don't care about NHL. I care they are playing for Russia."
Spoken like a man whose national team -- and its young players -- cannot take anything for granted.
"I know you say he is going to be the next Gretzky in America," he added. "But like I said: Let's see the results first."