Friday, April 11, 2008
It's no surprise that the Washington Capitals have captivated local sports fans with their run to the playoffs, an improbable surge sparked by their charismatic star, Alex Ovechkin, everyman coach Bruce Boudreau and stars-in-the-making Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green.
What's surprising is the amount of attention the Capitals' charge into the playoffs is receiving outside the Washington area.
The Capitals are a big deal in Moscow, where the quartet of Ovechkin, Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov and Alexander Semin has turned the Capitals into "Russia's team," much the way the Detroit Red Wings' "Russian Five" became the country's surrogate squad in the 1990s. They are headline news in Sweden, Backstrom's home. And they're the talk of sports television and radio programs in Canada, where the game's most rabid fans have been drawn in by Ovechkin's record-breaking season and the Capitals' remarkable rally from last place to Southeast Division champions.
"It's everything that's gone on this year with the Washington Capitals," said Dan Blakeley, host of the Toronto-based radio show, "The War Room," on XM Radio. "It's like, here's this team that's risen from the ashes. Everyone is pulling for them. Even most of us in 'The War Room' -- we've adopted them as our second team. "
One measurement of Capitals' growing international popularity is the number of credentials that have been issued for Games 1 and 2 of the first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers. The team is expecting 250 credentialed media members, nearly twice as many as during the team's last playoff appearance in 2003. That figure includes six Russian outlets and four from Canada. Another measurement: Traffic on the team's Web site this season has come primarily from Virginia, Maryland and . . . Ontario, a close third.
Last season, media members flocked to Pittsburgh for Penguins phenom Sidney Crosby's first foray into the playoffs. Tonight, they will be filing reports on Ovechkin's playoff debut from Verizon Center.
"We're not dumb," said longtime Edmonton Journal sportswriter Jim Matheson, who covered Wayne Gretzky's Oilers teams. "The best player is usually the best story. We want to see how the best player is going to do in the playoffs. Because it's not the regular season anymore. It's different. This is big because it's Ovechkin, and nobody scores 65 goals anymore."
In Moscow, where Ovechkin grew up and soccer is still king, sports newspaper Sovetsky Sport published the headline "Washington's Cinderella" on its front page the day after the Capitals clinched their first playoff berth in five years, while a popular Russian sports Web site proclaimed, "They did it!"
"It was huge," said Dmitry Chesnokov, a Washington-based correspondent for Sovetsky Sport. "They've been a Cinderella story. But people in Russia loved it especially because the Russian players contributed so much to the success of this franchise. Those guys, they made the country proud, you know? When Fedorov was traded here, one of the headlines was 'Russians Invade Washington.' "
Slava Malamud, a U.S. based-correspondent for a competing Russian sports publication, Sport Express, agreed. He and Chesnokov cover the Capitals' home games on a regular basis.
"The Washington Capitals have officially become Russia's most popular team outside of Russia," Malamud said. "It could even be Russia's most popular hockey team, period, because everyone roots for them. Every year, Russians follow the NHL playoffs, hoping that a team with a lot of Russians will get knocked out so they can play in the World Championships. This year, they love the Caps so much, fans don't care about the national team. They want them to win the Stanley Cup."
The games will be broadcast in Russia, beginning at 3 a.m. in Moscow. But that hasn't stopped fans from booking tables at a popular Moscow sports pub, Sportland, to watch them, according to Chesnokov. Russians visiting the United States in recent weeks, Chesnokov said, have been stocking up on Capitals apparel and selling it for huge markups upon returning home.
Backstrom's outstanding rookie campaign, coupled with the Capitals' thrilling late-season playoff push, has received big play in Sweden, particularly in his home town of Gavle, where a local paper has a blog dedicated to Backstrom, called Backisbloggen. It has received 50,000 page views since the start of the season, according to sports writer Magnus Hagerborn. Hagerborn said tonight's game will be broadcast live in Sweden.
"The NHL playoffs are always big in Sweden, it's always been. People were definitely rooting for the Capitals to make the playoffs, the Rangers, too, and all of the teams with a lot of Swedes," said Henrik Ek, a New York-based freelance journalist who writes for several Swedish publications. "The day they got in, the headlines were, 'Backstrom makes the playoffs' and 'Backstrom did it.' The tabloids have had stories on him. He's a big story right now."
All the attention they're getting back home is not lost on the players or their coach.
"There's a good reason to gravitate toward us," said Coach Bruce Boudreau, who grew up in Toronto. "I talked to people back home and everyone back in Canada. It's a Cinderella story they don't want to end."