By April Witt
Sunday, November 26, 2006
Alexander Ovechkin, the luminous young Russian-born hockey player, sat in a folding seat at RFK Stadium enjoying a great American ritual: ballpark hot dogs. Really enjoying it. He removed a hot dog from a bun with his fingers and fed it directly into the glossy mouth of his voluptuous blond girlfriend. In between bites, the couple giggled and smooched.
She wore a black knit dress cut so low that a tiny bright pink bow on the front of her black bra peeked out of her decollete. He wore ripped, $500 Dolce & Gabbana bluejeans and sported a green bruise under one eye. The bruise was a souvenir from a preseason hockey game the night before. The game was Alex's second without scoring a goal since reporting for training camp. It was an annoying little lull for the National Hockey League's reigning rookie of the year -- a rocket-wristed 21-year-old touted as the greatest offensive lineman in the game today, and, potentially, the greatest ever. But, at that moment, Alex didn't look as though he was suffering. "I just kiss him on his eye," reported his girlfriend, Veronika Dyvanskaya, who was visiting from Russia. "And I say, 'You are a great man, a strong man.'"
It was a mild evening in late September. Sitting high in an unpopulated corner of the mezzanine, Alex was waiting to go down to the field to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in the Nationals game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Until this VIP trip to the ballpark, Alex had never thrown a baseball or swung a bat. His only experience of the game was playing electronic baseball on his PlayStation as a boy growing up in Moscow. He had no idea whether he'd throw the ball over the plate. "I'm not nervous," he said in accented English. "There aren't lots of people here. If it falls no good, for me it is okay."
Some of his teammates were nervous for him. For hardy men who make their living in the only professional team sport where fighting is considered part of the game, looking like a geek is not an option. At game time, seven fellow Capitals accompanied Alex down through the stands and onto the field. They showed moral support for their team's only megawatt star the best way they knew how. They made fun of him. "A hundred bucks it bounces," Jamie Heward, the Capitals' 215-pound defenseman, said. "Hey, Ovie, you should have worn your Dolce & Gabbana sweat pants!"
Alex assumed the pitching stance. He looked oddly handsome with his broad face, unibrow and nose, broken four times, that lists left. He wound up and threw. A neat strike over the heart of the plate.
"Wow," Alex said as he came off the field, grinning like an excited kid. "Wow."
The instant the ball sailed over the plate, the crowd began to cheer. The ovation persisted as Alex made his way off the field and through the crowded lower stands. As he passed, fans lept up from their seats to offer high-fives. They lifted up cellphones to record his image. They screamed his name. One woman was so overcome by the sight of Alex that she forgot to swallow, and greeted him with a wide, gaping mouth full of popcorn.
Five days later, Alex stood on the fourth tee of the Springfield Golf and Country Club, hitting shots with borrowed clubs. Alex, the Capitals' most marketable player, was co-host of a charity tournament. He had never played a round of golf in his 21 years. So he didn't enter the tournament. He stood on the tee, greeting golfers, signing autographs and taking practice shots. On about his 100th shot, something happened that most golfers wait a lifetime to achieve: The ball soared 160 yards, bounced three times and dropped into the cup -- a hole-in-one.
Gleeful, the young hockey star hooted, stomped, pumped his fists. He picked up his borrowed 4-iron sideways and strummed it as if it were a guitar. He hollered to his hockey teammates nearby to come see what he had done. "I swear to God!" he called to them breathlessly. "I swear on my mom!"
Forty-nine years earlier -- long before Alex was destined to make the most improbable athletic feats look preordained -- his mother was walking home from school and was struck by a car. She was 7 years old. Her right leg was so mangled that doctors initially wanted to amputate. Instead, Tatiana Kabayeya spent a year in a Moscow hospital, her leg suspended in traction. When her shinbone failed to mend properly, doctors re-broke it three times.
Somehow, amid all that suffering, young Tatiana forged a determination to never again be weak -- to grow strong, to become, in fact, the strongest. That became the central organizing principle of her life. It drove her to become a professional basketball star in the Cold War-era Soviet Union who, at only 5 feet, 8 1/2 inches tall, twice led her teams to Olympic gold medals. When Alex was born, she passed on that determination .
"Da," she said recently. Yes: the key to everything. The Russian sports legend lifted the hem of her blue dirndl skirt to expose a right leg that even now, at age 56, is thinner than the left and gnarled with shiny scar tissue.
Both Alex's parents grew up in Moscow. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, Alex's paternal great-grandfather ran a small bread factory outside the city. According to family lore, he survived the post-revolutionary purges because he'd been a benevolent boss. The Ovechkins moved to a Moscow apartment where three families -- 12 people in all -- shared two rooms. "Not two bedrooms, two rooms," recalled Mikhail Ovechkin who, like his wife, was interviewed through an interpreter. The children escaped outside to play soccer, basketball and hockey on makeshift lots and rinks. When Mikhail was 9, his family got their own apartment. It happened to be near the stadium for the famous Dynamo Moscow sports club, and he soon was playing soccer there. The club, founded in the 1920s, operated under the auspices of the ministry of the interior and the KBG. It runs children's leagues and professional sports teams.
In a neighborhood across Moscow, Mikhail's future wife was also entering the Dynamo system. When Tatiana left the hospital at age 8, both her legs were badly atrophied. Doctors initially forbade her from partaking in any strenuous activity and required her to wear heavy boots year-round to protect her legs. She was humiliated.
Sometimes Tatiana accompanied her older sister, who played basketball in the Dynamo children's league, to practice. Once, when Tatiana was 9, the coach invited her to try throwing the ball. From that moment, she became obsessed with growing strong enough to make the team.
Day after day, she sat on a bench behind her family's apartment building, set bricks atop her legs and lifted them -- first one brick, then two, then three. "It sounds primitive," she said. "But you had to understand I had no advice. I had to make things up myself. I don't remember how many bricks I worked up to. I loved basketball so much that I worked until I was beside myself. I would train until I was out of my mind."
At 16, Tatiana joined Dynamo Moscow's professional women's basketball team, soon to become its star. Mikhail also signed a contract to play professional sports for Dynamo, in his case soccer. But a torn thigh muscle ended his soccer career when he was 17.
Mikhail met Tatiana a year later, while waiting for a train at the Dynamo Moscow station. She was 19 and already the national team captain. "She was quite a catch," he recalled. "There were a lot of men who were trying to see her." But it was Mikhail, jovial, kind and outgoing, who won her heart.
Soviet athletes' lives were strictly regimented: They were told where to live, what to eat, how many hours to train. Married women on Tatiana's basketball team were required to live in training barracks, their husbands forbidden to live with or even near them. The Ovechkins received special dispensation to share a room, both recall.
For years, Mikhail drove a cab in Moscow while his wife was a player, then coach and president of her team. When Eastern Europe's largest daily sports newspaper, Sport-Express Daily, recently asked a blue-ribbon panel to select the greatest basketball players of the century, Tatiana was the overwhelming top choice for female point guard.
In the economic chaos following the breakup of the Soviet Union, many sports teams foundered. Mikhail's years as a gregarious cabbie came in handy. "Cabbies know everything," he said, chuckling. "Cabbies know people who leave big tips."
He used his contacts to find financial sponsors for Dynamo Moscow's women's basketball team. The club rewarded him by hiring him as a director of Tatiana's team. It was a job with flexible hours and allowed him to spend more time with their three sons.
The youngest child was a natural competitor. When other children turned cardboard boxes into make-believe forts or castles, Alex turned them into imaginary hockey nets and practiced scoring.
Alexander Ovechkin's earliest hockey memory is one of failure and humiliation. His father drove him to his first hockey practice and stayed to watch. Alex was 8, old to be joining a hockey league. Most other boys at the practice had been skating together for two years already. When the coach ordered the boys to skate backward figure eights, the other skaters executed them neatly. Alex couldn't even skate backward. "I was mad," he recalled. "I tell my dad we must practice and get stronger, stronger."
Father and son began rising at 6 a.m. so the boy could skate a few hours before going, late, to elementary school. After classes, Alex had formal practice with his hockey league, then kept skating, often at a makeshift rink behind the family's apartment building. "He would skate there until his legs fell off," his dad recalled. "He'd come home every evening just completely exhausted. He would drop in the hallway, and we'd pick him up and just carry him to his room." Alex recalled that when he slept as a boy, he dreamed about chasing the puck.
His father, who accompanied him to every practice and game, helped him collect NHL cards -- since the fall of the Soviet Union, the American hockey league was the greatest aspiration of many Russian skaters -- and obtained copies of all-time great Wayne Gretzky's game tapes so they could dissect them together.
"It's a delicate thing, child psychology," the dad said. "You don't want to push too much on him." That would have been difficult in Alex's case. "The biggest punishment we could ever think of for him if he did anything wrong, or when he had bad grades in school, was to make him skip practice. He would immediately burst into tears and beg for forgiveness."
Tatiana Ovechkina -- who calls her youngest son Sasha -- recognized her own determination in him and nourished it. "I was very demanding of myself as an athlete when I played," she said. "I always tried to instill in Sasha to be as demanding as I was."
He quickly grew stronger and more skilled at hockey than other boys his age. His parents urged him to work harder still -- and always for the team, not his own glory.
"I tried not to praise him," his mother said. "After a win . . . the next morning over breakfast I could tell him: 'You know, you did okay. But right there you made a mistake. And there you didn't skate hard enough. And there you didn't go all the way to fight for the puck. And you were lazy in that episode, so work on that.'"
On September 17, 1995, Alex turned 10. Two days later, his oldest brother, Sergei, 22, who'd been recuperating after a car accident, died suddenly of unforeseen complications. The next day, Alex's youth team was scheduled to play a game. "His brother wasn't even in the ground yet," the father recalled. "We decided he shouldn't skip the game. He played while tears were flowing down his cheeks. He cried the entire game, but he played. He wanted to play. We were obviously not thinking about hockey that day. I don't even know what the score was. We didn't really think of it as a lesson. We didn't want him to sit at home and dwell, and to cry and to poison himself with his thoughts."
Alex was only 15 when Don Meehan, the Canadian sports agent, sent an emissary to talk to the family about representing the young hockey player. Two years later, Capitals general manager George McPhee arranged to meet Alex in a hotel lobby in the Czech Republic. McPhee wanted to get a sense of the teenager, even though Alex wouldn't be eligible to play in the NHL until he turned 18.
To capture the hockey world's attention Alex had forsaken almost every soft distraction of youth. He had done nothing but play hockey. It was a price he was happy to pay, he said. Just being on the ice with his teammates was always, "sort of a high for me," he said through an interpreter. "It's like a child getting his most secret dream achieved. For example, if you always dreamed about a toy transformer robot and you finally get it. That's what I feel on the ice."
Scoring, of course, feels even better. "You can imagine a situation when you are running away from an angry dog," Alex explained. "You've got a bit of adrenaline in your blood, right? Combine that with a sense of accomplishment, and you've got a goal."
Like his mother before him, Alex began his professional sports career at age 16 with Dynamo Moscow. That same year, he set scoring records in the World Under-18 Junior Championships and helped lead the junior national team to a gold medal. At 17, he became the youngest skater in history to play for the Russian national team.
Russian professional sports are notoriously tough. When one high-profile Russian hockey star complained that he'd been psychologically pressured to sign his contract, the team president famously scoffed that real pressure was when you banged a skater's head against a radiator.
Alex's iron-willed mother tried to shield him from the rough business side of professional hockey. She and her husband helped negotiate his contracts. "I wouldn't trust my child to anyone else," she said.
When Alex was 18, the Washington Capitals, then ranked 28th out of 30 NHL teams, won the 2004-05 draft lottery -- a stroke of luck akin to a slot-machine jackpot. Out of all the teams in the NHL, the Caps would get the first draft pick. "We were all excited," McPhee recalled. "I called our chief amateur scout. I said, 'If you had to pick today, who would you take?' He said, 'It's got to be Ovechkin.' . . . We just felt like Alex's character and his physical playing really separated him from any other player we could see."
But labor disputes shut down the NHL. So Alex kept playing for Dynamo Moscow, until he walked out over a dispute about pay and what size apartment the team was supposed to provide the family in crowded Moscow. "If they fooled you, there is no forgiveness," Tatiana recalled telling Alex about the family's dealings with the club. "My credo in life is: One strike and you are out."
Alex's mother, angry at Dynamo and uncertain about when the Caps would skate again, urged her son to go to Siberia and accept a lucrative offer to play for the team in the city of Omsk.
"Omsk is like Pittsburgh," Alex said. "It's not like New York." He went to Omsk. He was living in the team training barracks, but hadn't played his first game for them yet, when word came from Washington. The lockout was over, and the Capitals were hoping their first-round draft pick would show up for training camp in the fall of 2005. The lights were out in the Omsk barracks. It was after curfew. Alex, 19, had a phone in each hand, he recalled. On one line was a conference call with his parents, McPhee and one of his agents. On the second phone, Alex had a private line connecting him to the power behind the skater: Mom. McPhee promised Tatiana that the Caps would take good care of her son; they would help him adjust to a new and very different life. When the calls began, Tatiana was inclined to have Alex stay in Omsk for one season. The Russian money was good: nearly $2 million. McPhee laid out a bonus plan under which Alex could earn more -- much more -- if he played as brilliantly as they hoped. But the basic salary McPhee offered, the only money Alex was guaranteed if he came to the United States, was less than Omsk was paying.
Suddenly, the party line went dead. Sitting in the dark, waiting for the conference call to be reconnected, Alex contemplated his future in Omsk. "I think about the money," he recalled in English. "You can take the money and not be happy. Or you can take the dream."
The dream -- playing in the NHL -- meant testing his skills and determination against the greatest players in the No. 1 hockey league in the world. Alex told his mom he wanted to live his American dream. She agreed.
The teen was so excited after he hung up that he ran around the barracks telling friends on the Omsk team: "I go to the NHL! I go to the NHL!"
"First time I go to ice," Alex said, reminiscing about his first game with the Capitals, "My heart was like, boom, boom."
Alex skated into the Caps' 2005-06 season opener wearing number 8: his mom's old basketball number. He had just turned 20. In the first minute of the game, the young Russian raced across the ice and checked an opposing player into the boards so hard that he broke the protective glass barrier above. Fans in the arena rose to give Alex an ovation while repairs temporarily halted the game.
In the second period, Alex scored and couldn't contain his joy. He jumped in the air. He pumped his stick over his head. He dropped to one knee. He scanned the arena for his parents. It wasn't just his first goal of his rookie NHL season, he later recalled; it was theirs.
Any dedicated Capitals fan knows the precise moment in Alex's first season in the NHL when he achieved rock-star status in the hockey world. It was January 16, in the third period of a lopsided matinee game between the Capitals and the Phoenix Coyotes. Alex had played only 43 games in the NHL. Passionate on the ice and ebullient off, he'd won the respect and affection of his teammates. He was already poised to break NHL rookie scoring records. Yet he'd been overshadowed all season by another supremely talented rookie -- Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who seemed to capture more public attention.
That was about to change.
Once Alex skated onto the ice, he no longer heard the fans in the stand. He was focusing too intently on the puck: that three-inch-wide disc of black vulcanized rubber that had been skidding 100 mph though all his dreams, waking or slumbering, since childhood. Nearly 12 minutes into the third period, Alex scooped the puck in his stick and drove toward the Phoenix goal with defenseman Paul Mara guarding closely. Alex cut right to left in front of the goal, preparing to fire the puck backhanded into the net.
That's when Mara knocked Alex off his feet and sent him hurtling headfirst away from the net. "When I was going down, when I was about to fall to the ice," Alex recalled, "I saw the goal. When I fell down, I didn't see the goal anymore, but I saw the puck."
Skidding along the ice on his back, arms stretched high over his head, only one hand still gripping his stick, Alex reached out to flick the puck precisely where intuition told him the net should be.
Once he managed to stand up, he wasn't sure he had really scored until he saw teammates running across the ice reaching out to hug him. "I was a little bit shocked," he said.
"He may have been the only guy who could score that goal," the stunned announcer told the crowd. "Alexander the Great!"
The sense of collective awe in the stadium only grew as the replay of Alex's improbable goal appeared on a giant screen overhead. What would soon become known simply as "The Goal" wasn't just a lucky shot. "As he fell, he had presence of mind to change the angle of his hand and his stick so that he could kind of shoot with the stick behind his head," Ollie Kolzig, the Capitals' veteran goalie recalled. "Unless you've played hockey, you don't understand how difficult that is. Once we saw that on replay, we all lost our minds on the bench . . . A talent like his only comes by once in a lifetime."
In all the world of hockey, only Alex's parents seemed not to be awestruck by their son's feat. It was as if they expected nothing less. "My first thought was, Well, you can score that way, too," recalled Mikhail, who watched the game live on NTV-Plus cable back in Russia. "He's scored lots of interesting goals. You always have to be ready to score from any situation."
Tatiana didn't leap up in amazement or cheer when she saw The Goal. Instead, she thought of the words to a popular Russian song glorifying individual sacrifice for the common good: "We need one victory, one for all, regardless of the price."
Alex is signing hockey sticks -- 400, to be precise. The sticks, premiums for season ticket holders, are stacked atop several long folding tables in the Capitals' home arena, Verizon Center in Chinatown. Alex is working his way down the line with a silver Sharpie.
The Capitals offered the season ticket holders the choice of a stick signed by Alex or by goalie Kolzig. Most opted for Alex's autograph. "Poor kid's arm is going to be broke," a team official said, shaking his head, as he passed by.
"I have to do it because fans must come to watch our game," Alex said earnestly.
By this point, a day in mid-September, it's been just over a year since the Siberian conference call. Alex has had a season to adjust to the surreal demands and bounty of his new life in America. And what a season. He became the second rookie ever to score more than 50 goals and 100 points, and he won a landslide vote to be named the NHL 2005-06 rookie of the year. He earned every bonus possible under his Capitals' contract and finished the season with at least $4.25 million in hockey paychecks. He also earned an undisclosed sum in deals to endorse hockey equipment.
Last year, Alex, arrived from Russia speaking little English. When a team official tried to hand him cash to pay for his meals during training camp, Alex initially refused to accept. Thinking that the guy was trying to pay him to autograph hockey sticks, Alex, raised to be scrupulously polite, insisted he was happy to sign for free. Now, the Capitals star knows enough English to joke in his second language.
"Nickname?" a Capitals employee asked Alex as the team lined up for preseason processing.
"Ovie," he said "Any other nicknames?" she asked, scribbling on her clipboard.
"Sex Bomb," he said with a straight face, then waited for her to look up from her clipboard before laughing.
Alex doesn't stand in line much. He is more in demand for interviews and promotions than his teammates and is hustled from one commitment to the next all day; he's on a short list of players the NHL is promoting to help popularize the sport. Ever since the lockout, hockey has been struggling to regain its former toehold as the fourth major sport in the United States. The league has adopted rules changes to make the game faster-paced and more exciting. Ticket sales have increased, but large arenas such as the Verizon Center still have thousands of empty seats on hockey nights. Television ratings are down. After the agony of the lockout and the Capitals' own cost-cutting reorganization, Alex is like an antidote to the pain, team owner Ted Leonsis said. Other teams clamor for Alex to play their arenas, Leonsis said. "This guy is becoming a folk hero in hockey," he said. "No one has seen in a long, long time this rare combination of speed, strength, skill and absolute passion for the game. And, he's a nice kid . . . That's where we really hit the jackpot. The new NHL has to be very fan-centric. This young man loves everything about the game. He loves the fans. You can't script that."
On this day, the sports reporters ask Alex the same questions over and over. Does he worry that his rookie streak of goals will end in a sophomore slump? What is the state of his much-hyped ongoing rivalry with hockey's other hot young player, Crosby?
"I don't listen to this," Alex answers again and again. "I just concentrate on hockey."
Alex's father, who is visiting from Russia, waits all day on a folding chair just outside the locker room. He doesn't speak English, so there's not much he can do here. He just likes being near his son. Before Alex can drive his father home, he has to pose for a rinkside photo with Kolzig. After Alex, Kolzig is the Caps' biggest star. The photographer explains that the story is about Alex but that Kolzig is quoted in it.
"Big smiles," the photographer urges the two massive men as they pose together wearing Caps jerseys. "Give him a noogie," he directs Kolzig as he snaps away. "That's right. Give him a noogie."
When someone with the team stops to watch the photo shoot, Kolzig explains that he's helping out with a story about Alex. "That's all I seem to be doing this year," the 36-year-old goalie said.
One of Alex's agents, Susanna Goruven, was gripping the dashboard of his new white BMW M6 as the hockey player accelerated toward a red light.
"Sasha!" she cried.
Alex hits the brakes. He grinned at her. His window was all the way down. Russian techno pop was blaring from his speakers, making downtown Arlington sound like a Moscow disco. Alex was dancing in his red leather bucket seat and singing along. This particular song, he said, was about "one boy, 25 girlfriends."
"No," he said, smiling into the rearview mirror. "I'm joking."
Alex was on his way home after visiting a T-Mobile kiosk at Ballston Commons Mall. Goruven came along to help negotiate the intricacies of international roaming and text-messaging charges. Alex came home with a new cellphone, a family and friends plan, and a SIM memory card for his older brother Mikhail's phone.
The brothers live in a four-bedroom, Federal-style brick house near downtown Arlington. Alex bought it in Fall 2005 for just over $1.5 million. Mikhail, 24, who lives in the United States part of the year to study English and keep his brother company, doesn't play sports. He unilaterally ended his own sports career at age 10. "It didn't work out," he recalled. "One day, suddenly, I woke up, and decided I didn't want." He informed his parents. "They took it fine," he said. Now he watches sports on the big flat-screen TV in the den with the new taupe leather furniture.
At the moment, the brothers have a full house. In addition to their parents visiting from Moscow, Goruven is in from Canada, and Alex's girlfriend is about to arrive from St. Petersburg, where she is a student at St. Petersburg State University of Economics and Finance. There is no mistaking who lives here. The Ovechkins, in the Russian custom, take their shoes off at the front door. The marble foyer is covered with a rainbow of Alex's sports shoes and a few pairs of size 10 pumps belonging to his mom. The walls, the bookcases, mantel and glass-front kitchen cabinets are lined with Alex's hockey memorabilia: photos of him, his Russian national team jersey, the puck with which he scored The Goal. A stray jock strap rests on one kitchen counter.
It is a beautiful house, with stainless appliances in the outsize kitchen and a big deck out back. Alex's mother, who is helping him decorate, arrived with curtains and pillows she'd had made in Moscow. This home, nice as it is, was never part of Alex's dream, his father said. "He'd live in a toolshed if you let him play hockey."
Most days, Alex rises just in time to brush his teeth and hair and race to practice. When it's over, he lunches, then naps. Evenings when he doesn't have a game, he often spends quiet time with family playing cards or watching movies. He likes light comedies, such as "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," he said. They help relieve the pressures of everyone's expectations, especially his own.
On the kitchen table one recent afternoon, Tatiana spread a large lunch of borscht, pickled herring, fried fish fillets, hearty bread and an apple cake she had just baked. "When we are here, my brother and me alone, no food -- nothing," Alex said as he speared a chunk of pickled herring. "We order some pizza, some sushi."
When his mother is back in Russia, where she is still president of Moscow Dynamo's women's basketball team, Alex occasionally tries to prepare simple dishes for himself, but needs help. "I just call my mom and say, 'What am I supposed to do?'" he said.
After lunch, Alex stretched out on a sofa in the living room. He put his bare feet up on the cream damask and arched them as his mother stood over him stroking his brown curly hair tenderly. Mother and son beamed.
Some things never change. Some do. Alex's parents, accustomed to overseeing every aspect of his career and finances in Russia, have had to cede some control to their son, his agents and the Capitals. They are all trying to adjust to a culture in which the greatest athletes are celebrities pressed to be sports promoters.
"It's a bit surprising to me," Tatiana said. "I'm a little bit taken aback at this. Here it's normal for a kid this young to be so much exposed and do a lot of meetings with the press or the fans. When he was in Russia, I was very much against him being so much exposed to the public. I have to recognize the fact that this is a different country, and different rules apply. But, to me, sports are sports. And everything else is everything else."
She trusts her son to negotiate his strange new world, she said, and not to get distracted. "He can take care of himself," his mother said. "Hockey is a very difficult sport. It's not like chess or golf. You have to be a real man, a strong man and a very brave man to play hockey."
But Alex still has help from some fierce women. Goruven, who works for agent Meehan, helps Alex negotiate transactions from buying his house and car to getting the right hockey sticks. One day in the preseason, new custom sticks arrived from a company with which Alex has an endorsement deal. A recent NHL rule change allows for a greater curve on stick plates. Since Alex, like other European skaters, grew up playing with more curved sticks than the NHL previously allowed, he expected the new rule to be a boon to his performance. When the prototypes for his new sticks arrived, however, he decided the configuration of the curve wasn't quite right.
"This is horrible," Goruven yelled into her cellphone at a company representative. "It's not acceptable." She paced around Alex's home office as she spewed. Alex sat at his computer quietly.
"It's unacceptable," Goruven sputtered into the phone. "Unacceptable. Unacceptable. Not for this kind of player. Make sure it's right this time." She hung up.
"Poor Susanna," Alex said sweetly.
The SUV nosed out of the Verizon Center's underground parking garage and inched up the ramp. In the back seat, Alex and his girlfriend traded kisses and murmured to each other in Russian. Up ahead, a few female hockey fans, shapeless in their Capitals jerseys, spotted the SUV and stirred.
"This is the reason why we're in this car and not walking," the team's promotions manager said. "The place is 20 yards away. But if there are fans outside, I don't want him walking into a feeding frenzy."
It was 10:25 p.m. on a mid-September evening. The Capitals had just lost their first preseason game to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Alex hadn't scored. Now he was tired and uncharacteristically subdued. He'd just showered, but was still sweating from the game. Veronica blew lightly on his damp face to cool him down.
Down Sixth Street NW, R&R Bar was crowded with rowdy fans swigging Budweiser, waiting and chanting: O-vie! O-vie! O-vie! DC-101 disc jockey Elliot Segal was hosting a promotional event billed as a 21st birthday bash for Alex; the hockey star's actual birthday was three days earlier. Chris Lewis, the Capitals' director of promotions, ran down the schedule: pictures, autographs and the ceremonial cutting of a birthday cake.
"Then I'm free?" Alex said hopefully.
It was late for Alex to be doing this. He had practice in the morning. The Capitals needed this promotion more than he did. Polite and compliant, Alex didn't say that. He flashed a tentative smile. "Let's do it," he said, as he stepped into the alley wearing a dark blue pinstriped suit and a two-day beard.
"Dolce," he said, tugging at the lapel of his suit, made by his favorite designers, Dolce & Gabbana. "Gucci," he said, pointing to his black loafers. He seemed both pleased and slightly embarrassed.
In the alley to meet him was Nate Ewell, the Capitals' 32-year-old director of media relations, looking solemn. Inside the bar was a bacchanal. Ewell didn't want this promotion to undermine Alex's wholesome image. "If you want anything to drink," Ewell told him, "I'll hold it."
Alex had no room to maneuver in the packed bar as fans lunged forward offering insistent high-fives and objects to autograph. As the lights on the television cameras blinked on, someone handed Alex a big glass of beer.
"Listen, I want you to go easy on him," Elliot told the crowd in circus-master tones. "It's his first time being legal to have something to drink."
"What's up, guys?" Alex called to the crowd. "Thanks for coming, and cheers."
He took a sip of beer then put the glass down. Revelers broke into a draggy, atonal rendition of "Happy Birthday." Alex furiously signed his name on anything anyone thrust at him, pausing only to wipe sweat from his face with the sleeve of his Dolce & Gabbana suit.
"Ease up, fella," a bouncer said to one overzealous fan. It was no use. One fan after another rushed forward to pose, grinning, next to the famous hockey player, who took another sip of beer.
"Put your drink down," the fresh-faced Ewell muttered sotto voce. "No pictures with your drink."
Downstairs was more pandemonium. Hip-hop music blared. Elliot's microphone didn't work. "WE L-O-O-O-O-V-E YOU!" a young woman screamed at an excruciating volume.
"Thank you very much," Alex said mildly.
"O-VIE! O-VIE! O-VIE!" the crowd chanted.
"Who?" Alex called back to them playfully. "Who?"
A hefty woman standing directly in front of him began unbuttoning her shirt.
"Whenever you are ready," Ewell told Alex nervously, indicating that it may be time to beat a hasty exit. Too late. The woman finished unbuttoning her shirt and presented her left breast for Alex to autograph. She was a very big fan. Alex, grinning, signed. "He's a rock star," Ewell said.
TATIANA AND MIKHAIL OVECHKIN SAT ALONE in the stands for the Capitals' first home game of the season on October 7.
Tatiana, as is her custom, dressed as if for the theater: dark clothes and a single strand of pearls. "Hockey is a bit like theater in a way," her husband said. "Every time there is a line change, it's like a change of decoration or new actors in a theatrical play. The story is going to go another way. Then, of course, it will change again. There is always a plot to the story of a game, shifting characters and action. There is a beauty to it. Somebody is always trying to make a masterpiece out of it. You sit there and wait for that to happen."
The Ovechkins could have been comfortably ensconced with other VIPs in the owner's suite or eating prime rib at a table overlooking the ice at the plush Acela Club. Instead, they took seats with ordinary ticket-buyers. Tatiana likes to concentrate on the action without the distraction of polite chitchat or waiters taking orders. She wanted to focus on her son's every move. "I mutter to myself," she said. "I swear to myself. I celebrate by myself. I try to tune in to his mental field."
The pressure on her son had been building for weeks. He had gone five games without a single goal: four in the preseason, then the dreadful season opener against the New York Rangers, a 5-2 loss. If you counted last season's final game, Alex's goalless streak was six games. It was beginning to feel like the curse of the sophomore slump wasn't just something sports writers asked about.
Down on the ice, Alex wasn't worrying about slumps. He was "totally focused on the puck," he said. "The rest of it I take it by the sound. I know the voices of all my teammates. I filter out all other sounds and forget what the fans are yelling. You have to be focused on the puck every time you step on the ice."
As the minutes flashed by on the scoreboard, Alex skated ever closer to an unlucky seven games with no goals. The Carolina Hurricanes, the defending Stanley Cup champions, dominated the first half. The Capitals' newest Russian player, Alexander Semin, looked to be the lone hometown hero of the evening, scoring one goal every period.
When Alex still hadn't scored by the beginning of the third period, he told himself: Don't worry. It didn't matter if he scored personally. All that mattered was the Capitals winning.
"To me hockey is less like theater and more like war," Alex said. "You come out five soldiers against five enemy soldiers. You are trying to defeat them and take what they think is theirs."
Sitting high above the rink, Alex's mother watched her son intently. She had stopped worrying sometime in the second period, she later recalled. "I could feel it," she said. "There was some kind of mental connection between us. I could see him gradually getting into the flow of the game. I could see his movements change. I could see his mind-set change. I could really feel what he feels. I'm sure he could feel what I felt. I know him through and through. I know every one of his moves. I know every one of the little things he does on ice. I always know what it leads up to, and whether it's going to be successful or not successful. I knew everything was going to be fine."
Mom was right. Alex could sense his mother watching him, he later said. "I feel that she wants to help me," he recalled. "She does help me when she is in the stands because she is my mom. My dad helps me, too. I play for them."
Alex exploded in the third period, vanquishing the specter of the sophomore slump as if it were an opposing player. He scored twice, helping lead the Caps to a 5-2 victory. He made 15 shots on goal that night, a career record for him. Over the next 12 games, he scored eight goals and assisted on eight more, besting his record for the same period last season. Each time he scored, he blew a kiss heavenward. The kisses, he said, were for his late brother, Sergei.
After the cheering stopped the night that the rookie of the year got his skating groove back, Alex, his girlfriend, parents and brother headed for the big brick house that hockey bought. The family didn't waste time chatting about endorsement deals or what the sports reporters asked afterward in the locker room. The parents didn't heap their son with foolish praise. They analyzed the game.
Then, as Alex drifted off to sleep in his king-size bed in the master bedroom with the walk-in closet full of Dolce & Gabbana clothing, he dreamed hockey.
Just as he did as a small boy in Moscow, Alex dreams often that he is pursuing the puck. Only now, he said, after all these years of struggle and determination, he also dreams of holding proof that he has tested himself against the worthiest foes in the world and prevailed. He dreams that the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup.
"It's not a recurring dream," he said. "My dreams are never exactly the same from night to night. But the Stanley Cup is there quite often." Winning the cup is never easy, not even in his dreams. "It's a difficult fight," he said. "We are always behind in the series. We struggle. We win in overtime. It is never easy. But we win in the end."
The young man's dreams are so intensely vivid that "it's to the point where I can feel the cup," he said. "I can feel touching it, raising it above my head."
April Witt is a staff writer for the Magazine. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon , along with Slava Malamud, who covers the NHL for the Russian-language Sports-Express Daily.