By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
In the second floor lounge of Russia House, a Dupont Circle restaurant and bar that is a gathering spot for expatriates and diplomats from Moscow, St. Petersburg and beyond, the ceiling is still stained from the champagne that sprayed on a raucous night a year ago when four Russian-born hockey players celebrated their success in the U.S. capital.
For Alexander Semin, Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov and Alex Ovechkin, leading the Washington Capitals to the playoffs last year was a huge achievement for a franchise mired in mediocrity and obscurity for years. This year, it will take more than that to set off another vodka-fueled celebration.
As the Capitals begin the playoffs tonight against the New York Rangers at Verizon Center, they carry with them the expectations that come from being one of the National Hockey League's most exciting young teams. And whether the Capitals advance far in the postseason will depend to a large degree on the play of Semin, Fedorov, Kozlov and Ovechkin.
That is so not only because Ovechkin could be the seminal player of his generation, and a good bet to be the NHL's most valuable player for the second year a row. In a league in which Canadians hug Americans who embrace Russians who in turn befriend Swedes -- and the Capitals feature everyone in that group, and more -- the Russians form a cohesive group, ribbing each other in Russian while English fills the rest of the locker room.
"It makes huge difference," Ovechkin said recently in his still-slightly-broken-but-hugely-improved English.
That is particularly true in Washington. Unlike some East Coast cities, the District has no neighborhood of Russian immigrants, no equivalent of Brooklyn's Brighton Beach or Miami's Sunny Isles Beach. The Russian community here, such as it is, is scattered, much of it in the suburbs, small pockets of software executives and IT professionals in Gaithersburg, Rockville and across Northern Virginia. The corner store doesn't provide their social glue. The Internet does.
"Everyone lives close to their work," said Marina Davis, a native of Moscow who lives in Silver Spring and works for the International Club of D.C. "We have no one, single neighborhood. It's like we have a virtual community."
So the Russian Capitals -- who, for the playoffs, include backup goalie Simeon Varlamov, a rookie who gives Washington more Russians than any of the NHL's 30 teams -- have not only combined to make the Capitals hugely popular in their home country, they also provide one of the few tangible bonds for Russians here.
"If you have a Russian delegation here, and the Capitals are playing, it's a must," said Evgeny Agoshkov, who heads the Russian Cultural Centre in Northwest Washington. "That's the best place to take them, and they always want to go."
Verizon Center, then, could serve as the best Russian gathering spot in town. The Russian players, essentially immersed in their own little world, all live in Arlington, near the Capitals' Ballston training complex. They occasionally dine together at Morton's steakhouse downtown in the District or at Georgetown's Cafe Milano. Or they head up Connecticut Avenue to Russia House, which serves its vodka -- 107 varieties, including 29 from Russia -- in pint glasses, has seven Russian beers and features a Russian-speaking wait staff.
"So comfortable," Ovechkin said of the place, owned by a Virginian and a Latvian, and it makes sense considering that, on more than one occasion, he has slipped behind one of the bars, pulled out his iPod and plugged it into the stereo, taking over the music, usually a heavy dose of European DJ Tiësto. Semin and Ovechkin even dropped by on New Year's Eve, mixing with Americans and Eastern Europeans alike.
"I think they feel comfortable here," said Arturus Vorobjobas, one of Russia House's owners. "And we've definitely connected with them. They know us. They trust us."
Indeed, Ovechkin called it "an unbelievable place," and it isn't uncommon for the players to hold card games in the small, second-floor bar or bring Russian players from visiting teams there. Ovechkin said he needed such comfort when he arrived in Washington for his rookie year in 2005 after having starred for Dynamo Moscow of the Russian Superleague.
Just 19, he spoke almost no English, and the only teammate with whom he could reliably communicate was veteran Danius Zubrus, who is seven years older and now plays for the New Jersey Devils. The list of tasks with which Zubrus helped Ovechkin was endless. "If I need something to buy," Ovechkin said, "or go somewhere, or make a reservation, or open bank account, he helped."
That experience taught Ovechkin something Kozlov, who signed with the Capitals prior to the 2007-08 season, and Fedorov, acquired in a trade before last season's push to the playoffs, learned in their first few years in the NHL. The 34-year-old Kozlov, who grew up the son of automotive assembly line workers in the industrial city of Togliatti, came into the league with the San Jose Sharks, whose roster included the legendary Igor Larianov, as well as other Russians. Their presence, Kozlov said, was an essential part of his adjustment.
"Just picture yourself, 19 years old, being in Russia," Kozlov said. "No English. No nothing. Everything is different. That's how it was for me, for all of us."
For Fedorov, the change was even more striking. A star with the old Soviet Red Army team as a teenager, his mere arrival in the NHL is a tale Ovechkin and Semin, younger Russian players a generation removed, could hardly imagine. The Cold War was still on, the Soviet Union still stitched together. The Detroit Red Wings drafted him in 1989, a development he discovered only when a journalist slipped him a note during a tournament in Sweden. The following summer, as he toured North America with the Red Army club, he saw a man sitting, reading a newspaper, in a hotel lobby in Portland, Ore. He recognized it as the signal: Time to go.
Had he been caught by the KGB agent that traveled with the team, Fedorov would never again been allowed to leave Soviet soil. Quietly, he gave his roommate his money, about $600 worth of Swiss francs. He clutched a small bag, walked out the hotel's back door into a waiting limousine with tinted windows, and was off to a Gulfstream jet. He had a flight to Detroit, where a new contract, a new Corvette and a new life awaited.
"What do you know when you're 19?" said Fedorov, 39. "You don't know much. For sure, I realized I could get in trouble. But my curiosity was bigger."
Fedorov said he doesn't share his story of intrigue and espionage -- the trouble he had even connecting a phone call to his parents; the tension he felt, unbreakable even with several drinks, about returning to Moscow for the first time, in 1994 -- with Semin and Ovechkin. They don't ask.
"With all due respect, I doubt they understand," Fedorov said. "If you don't understand, you can't really appreciate it."
Fedorov says he, too, has broken with that past. He learned not to delve too deeply into the Russian communities in the United States because, back in his early days in Detroit, he said he was the victim of a financial scam orchestrated by a Russian immigrant. Instead, he has reveled in American life, living in the offseasons in Miami, where he took Ovechkin for a short vacation prior to this year's midseason break for the All-Star Game. He dated Russian temptress and tennis sensation Anna Kournikova. He drives a Maybach, a particularly high-end Mercedes, and his name resonates back home not only because he is still identified with that Red Army team, but because he was the first Russian MVP of the NHL, and when he was with the Red Wings, he skated for a time with an all-Russian unit known as "the Russian Five."
"He is, for us, like a symbol of luck," said Vladimir Proskuryakov, who works at the Russian Embassy in Northwest Washington. "He is always considered to be very clever. He's the brains."
Fedorov, who has played 18 seasons in the NHL, speaks Russian with his countrymen on the ice and in the locker room, where he typically dons a striped ski cap bearing his number, 91. Yet he says he draws no comfort from his native tongue. "It's been 20 years," he said. "I don't care. But for them, it matters."
Particularly for Semin. There may be no more interesting member of the Capitals than the enigmatic 25-year-old forward, a native of the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk who is as skilled a player as Ovechkin, if not as physical.
"Have I figured Semin out?" Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said after practice one day last month. "I want to pay a lot of money to a guy who can figure that guy out."
Unlike Ovechkin, who made a point to learn English when he arrived in Washington and has improved at his new language every year, Semin regularly declines interviews in English. He speaks, on occasion, to two Russian sports reporters who are based in Washington and who regularly send reports on the Russian Capitals back home.
"He knows English," said Ovechkin, Semin's closest friend on the team. "He just doesn't want to talk in interview."
Semin is, as Boudreau said, "an introvert." Even when he's at Russia House relaxing, he will ask Vorobjobas, his friend and one of the owners: "Should I talk to that girl? I can't talk to that girl."
"I can joke around with him in certain ways," Boudreau said. "But you just never know what his deepest thoughts are. . . . I got to believe if he knew the language better, then it would make things easier for him."
Ovechkin does his best to make things easier for Semin. "Same age, same interests in life, same style of clothes, same interest in cars," Ovechkin said. But the 23-year-old Ovechkin has a much different standing in his locker room. He has embraced all nationalities, attending concerts with Swede Nicklas Backstrom and Canadian Mike Green. He led the Russian Capitals to a charity event at the Russian Cultural Centre. And he is the league's reigning MVP who in January 2008 signed a $124 million contract extension with the Capitals, the richest in NHL history.
"He's a great example of a young Russian, a new Russian," said the Agoshkov of the Russian Cultural Centre. "Very motivated, a team player, a very intelligent person."
Yet when Ovechkin is not leading his team into the playoffs, as he will tonight, he may be pulling out his laptop during a down time at Russia House, checking out a Web site that sells spectacular new rims for one of his many sports cars. There is time for spraying champagne on the ceiling, and that may come later this spring. But there must, too, be time to be what he is, what all the Russian Capitals have been at one time or another: a young Russian adjusting to life in the United States.
"You have to have life here, too, other things you do," Ovechkin said. "We all do. We need friends, reminders of home. Sometimes, you just like to speak Russian, do Russian things."