Ovechkin Welcomes New Curve in His Game

Alex Ovechkin
Washington's Alex Ovechkin grew up playing with stick blades similar to those that will now be allowed in the NHL. (Charles W. Luzier - Reuters)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2006

It's just a fraction of an inch. But the difference for Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals' star winger, could be immeasurable.

On Thursday, the NHL approved a rule change that increases the maximum curvature for players' stick blades to three-quarters of an inch, up from the traditional half inch.

Although it may not sound like much, Ovechkin predicts it will give him and other Europeans an edge. They grew up playing under International Ice Hockey Federation rules, which permit a curve close to the NHL's new standard. (The IIHF measures in centimeters.)

"You will see this season when my new sticks come," Ovechkin said, grinning mischievously.

Increased curve allows Ovechkin to put more velocity on his already hard shot, launch the puck higher from close range, and control it better in traffic.

More is better for Ovechkin, Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk, the New York Rangers' Jaromir Jagr and a league seeking to increase scoring. Not so much for shell-shocked goalies still reeling from the last round of offense-promoting rule changes.

"It will help me, for sure," Ovechkin said at Ashburn Ice House, where the Capitals are holding their training camp. "Last year I played with a normal stick, maybe just a little bit [illegal]. Now it will be [curved] how I like it."

Asked if that meant fans could expect to see an increase in offensive production, say 60 goals -- eight more than he tallied in his 106 point-rookie season -- Ovechkin smiled again and said, "We will see."

Capitals General Manager George McPhee also welcomed the increase, saying it was the fair thing to do.

"It's good for Alex and it's good for European players because that's what they grew up with," he said. "It didn't seem fair to have these players, as kids, get accustomed to these sticks, grow up with them, develop with them, then come here and have to cut back. We want more scoring in the game and it didn't seem right that we would penalize players like Alex."

The old regulation hurt Ovechkin most in the shootout. The Russian, who turned 21 yesterday, was nearly unstoppable early last season. But he struggled after officials began cracking down on illegal sticks, measuring each one before the shooter took his turn. The "little bit" of illegal curve Ovechkin had been using was gone, and so, it seemed, was some of his advantage.

"I'm sure it will help Alex, if that's what he's comfortable with," Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon said. "I think it's good because it keeps [the standard] the same [between international rules and the NHL]. Everything is three-quarters of an inch, the Olympics, the world championships."

Ovechkin said representatives from CCM, the equipment company that sponsors him and supplies his sticks, took a couple of his favorite (and now legal) sticks from him on Saturday so the company could create a new mold for his signature model.

League officials had talked about permitting more curve for years, but the discussion never gained much traction. One of the fears was that harder shots might endanger players, fans and referees. But safety improvements have eased those concerns.

"There are no protection issues anymore," McPhee said. "The players all wear helmets, many of them wear shields, the glass is higher and there is netting to protect fans. There were some concerns that we'd be going back to the '70s, when it was an inch and a half. But nobody really got hurt then, so no one is going to get hurt now."

Capitals Notes : Ovechkin's birthday gift from his teammates was presented to him on the ice in front of approximately 750 fans, who had packed Ashburn Ice House to watch the players scrimmage. Matt Bradley crept up behind Ovechkin and smacked him in the face with a cream pie. Ovechkin, the other Capitals and the spectators cracked up with laughter.

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