Capitals' Alex Ovechkin won't change his need for speed
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Several weeks ago, Ted Leonsis noticed Alex Ovechkin coming down a hallway at the Washington Capitals' practice facility in Ballston and stopped to have a word.
The two men -- one the franchise's owner, the other its greatest player -- meet for occasional mentoring sessions in Leonsis's office, where they've discussed family life, finances and American culture, but rarely hockey. This was different, an impromptu conversation about Ovechkin's relentless style of play, which mirrors his frenetic lifestyle off the ice.
Leonsis adores his star's exuberance. But some have wondered whether that key ingredient to his success and appeal could someday shorten his career.
"You know, you're flying around the ice at 110 miles an hour," Leonsis remembered telling Ovechkin. "And if you flew around the ice at 100 miles an hour, it would be okay."
Ovechkin nodded his assent, and then largely ignored the suggestion. After all, his philosophy -- "get puck, score," as Leonsis described it -- has created the most successful period in Washington hockey history.
Ovechkin's Capitals will finish the regular season on Sunday as the National Hockey League's winningest team and head into this week's playoffs as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup. They've smashed local television and attendance ratings; Sunday's game will complete the franchise's first sold-out season.
Ovechkin is challenging for his third straight goal-scoring title despite missing 10 games. He's a leading candidate for his third straight most valuable player award -- something no Washington professional athlete has done -- and has become among the most marketable and recognizable athletes in a city better known for football and basketball loyalties.
There are screaming hordes whenever he leaves the team's practice facility. He's a regular at several trendy downtown clubs, poses with models for glossy magazine shoots, has the best-selling jersey among NHL players.
He also has a 13-year, $124 million contract -- the most lucrative in league history -- and a deal with powerhouse talent agency IMG, which describes his appeal as "mystical bravado" in its recently completed brand review. His teammates are occasionally seen less as fellow stars than as conduits, asked by restaurant hosts whether Ovechkin is on the way.
"Really, they don't care if we come in, just as long as he shows up," said defenseman Mike Green, one of Ovechkin's closest friends. "Everybody wants to meet Ovechkin. They want to see him and be around him."
And while the 24-year old's most recent season may have been the most complete of his career, it has been colored by disappointment and controversy, rare blemishes on what had been a spotless reputation. After dreaming of following in the footsteps of his Olympic gold-medal winning mother, Ovechkin's Russian team flamed out of the Vancouver Games without winning a medal. In a sport defined by physical contact, he was suspended twice for hits that crossed the line, losing nearly $335,000 in fines.
And he faced an increasing chorus of criticism from some journalists and fellow players, suggesting that brakes be applied to his 110-mph style.