Legend Stirs Rallying Cry In Ovechkin
Friday, February 24, 2006
TURIN, Italy, Feb. 23 -- Pavel Bure didn't want hesitation. He didn't want hemming and hawing. He wanted only one thing for the Russian hockey team, something which would seem to come naturally at the Olympics but which, too often, the Russians couldn't muster. He wanted patriotism.
"I have my beliefs," Bure said Thursday, standing in the bowels of an ice rink wearing a pair of Russian red corduroy pants, as patriotic as they come. "And my belief is you should be proud to play for your country."
Only moments before, Alex Ovechkin stood in nearly the same spot. He was asked a slew of questions, questions about Friday's Olympic semifinal game against Finland, questions about his Russian hockey heroes, questions about his progress in these, his first Olympics, in which he has scored five goals in six games. And the answers almost all boiled down to the one thing Bure wants to hear.
"I just go to ice," Ovechkin said, "and play hard for my country."
They are two standard-bearers of Russian hockey, the "Russian Rocket" himself, retired after 12 NHL seasons, who was assigned the task of assembling a team and developing an attitude that would deliver gold to a nation that hasn't won it in hockey as, simply, "Russia"; and the 20-year-old son of a two-time gold medalist who embodies the qualities his boss set out to instill in the team. Together, along with the rest of the men who appear to have bought into the "play for your country" mantra Bure has preached, they have unified Russians behind this team, searching for its first gold since shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when the Unified Team won the title in 1992 in Albertville, France.
"In Russia, everybody supports us," Ovechkin said. "Our friends call us and say, 'Come on, guys. We must win.' "
Ovechkin, the winger who has given the Washington Capitals new identity in his first NHL season, has been one of the most dynamic players on what is perhaps this tournament's most dynamic team. Just as with his success in the NHL, his Olympic reputation has come quickly. The other nine players who have scored four or more goals in the tournament have an average age of almost 31. Only one other, 35-year-old Yevgeniy Koreshkov of Kazakhstan, made his Olympic debut here.
Yet even at this age, Bure and others say they could foresee Ovechkin's success in this tournament because, as forward Doug Weight of the United States said, "He's a stud."
"He is young, but he's already a great player," Bure said. "I think he's going to have a huge future. The way he skates, the way he throws the hits. He has size. He has power. What I really like about him: It doesn't matter what the score is. He goes out there and plays hard every shift."
Yet in a tense quarterfinal matchup with Canada on Wednesday night, it very much mattered what the score was -- tied at 0 just 90 seconds into the third period -- when Ovechkin kept alive a chance on the Russian power play. Momentarily off-balance, he delivered the puck to teammate Viktor Kozlov. Ovechkin then composed himself, took the return pass, and buried a wrist shot that gave the Russians the lead.
"It was one of my important goals in my life and in my career," he said. "So probably tomorrow I try and score another goal."
Before this tournament, the Russians had a reputation for being more concerned with an individual spectacular play, such as that one, than with playing team hockey. It is that reputation that Bure tried to erase when he was named the general manager less than three months before the Olympics. Though the pool of top-level Russian talent isn't as deep as that in, say, Canada, Bure had unbendable rules for inclusion that included not hesitating when the call came extending an invitation. Bure had no previous management experience, not to mention a reputation for being rather aloof as a player. But he had cache with Russia's younger players -- which include Ovechkin, 19-year-old Evgeni Malkin and 22-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk -- and that counted for something.