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Capitals' Alex Ovechkin won't change his need for speed

By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010; A01

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.

To such complaints, Ovechkin reacted much as he did to his owner's suggestion. He is who he is. He plays how he plays. He doesn't want to change.

"I don't care what people say," said Ovechkin, who conducts virtually all his North American interviews in English. "Some people say good things, some people say bad things. You know, all people [have] different minds. If you gonna listen to everybody, I think you're gonna shoot yourself. I just care about myself, my family, my teammates, and that's it."

Instant impact

Twenty seconds into Ovechkin's first NHL appearance, he crushed Columbus defenseman Radoslav Suchy into the boards, dislodging a metal support and causing a three-minute delay. Before the night was over, he would score two goals. This combination -- imposing aggression and lethal goal-scoring -- had rarely been seen in the NHL.

"That's what sets him apart," said Joe Corvo, a defenseman who played against Ovechkin for years before joining the Capitals in a trade last month. "If you make him mad, he's gonna look for a chance to run you over. If he wants to run you over, he'll run you over, and he can."

Ovechkin shrugs such talk off, joking that he picked up this style "from Russia," but in fact the stereotype of European players had often been the opposite before his arrival. Ovechkin's parents -- who live in Ovechkin's North Arlington home for months at a time during the season -- said that he was always a strong and physical athlete.

She said her son weighed more than 12 pounds at birth, that he began competing with older children not long after he first put on skates at age 8. His parents -- who worked at the Dynamo Moscow sports complex -- would not allow him to lift weights and instead encouraged stretching, pull-ups and soccer while he waited for them to finish work.

After he became entranced by hockey, he would skate outside for eight or nine hours a day, bringing a thermos full of tea and sandwiches made by his mother, and then collapse with exhaustion when he returned home. By the time he was 12 or 13, he was regularly hooked up to an EKG machine at the sports complex, where a doctor would tell the parents whether his activity level was appropriate.

"That was his passion," said his father, Mikhail. "We weren't forcing him. We couldn't get him off the ice."

His parents were both athletes -- his mother a national-team basketball star, his father briefly a professional soccer player -- but even they said they marveled at the physical stature of their youngest son. His father recalled going into a sauna with a 16-year-old Alex and watching him pour water over the hot coals from behind; "I never really paid attention, and then it just shocked me how thick and wide he was," Mikhail said. "He was all muscles."

The Capitals drafted the heralded 18-year-old with the top pick in the 2004 draft, when he was 212 pounds.

While his mother said Ovechkin eats normal portions at home, teammates still joke about his pregame appetite. Two veterans refer to him as "a farm animal" feeding from a trough. "I couldn't eat that much," Green said. "He consumes," forward Mike Knuble added.

By 2006, Ovechkin was listed at 6 feet 2, 220 pounds. Last fall, he was up to 233 pounds, making him the Capitals' biggest player and one of the 15 heaviest forwards in the NHL.

Ovechkin didn't finish first in any of the team's weightlifting or off-ice physical tests this preseason, performing best in the vertical leap. Fellow players, though, say no one is harder to knock off the puck. "Like he's rooted into the ice," teammate Brooks Laich said.

"He's a thick human being," said Carolina's Tim Gleason, whose collision with Ovechkin in November led to the latter's first career suspension. "You don't see many goal scorers finishing hits like him."

Entering Sunday's games, Ovechkin -- who is tied for the league lead in goals -- was also credited with 183 hits, tied for 30th in the NHL. None of the other top 10 goal scorers was in the top 100 in that category, which is dominated by defensive-minded players who focus on physically separating opponents from the puck.

It's been suggested that such persistent contact could raise his risk of injury and even shorten his career, which Leonsis acknowledged "would be conventional wisdom." But Ovechkin seems not to care, saying he doesn't want to talk about the end of his career.

"I've been watching him play for five years now and just waiting, like, my God, when is this guy gonna run out of gas?" said former teammate Brian Pothier.

A need for speed

By last spring, Ovechkin was already the owner of a small fleet of luxury cars, but he was in the market for a Mercedes SL65 AMG Black Series. Boasting 661 horsepower, a top speed of 199 mph and a price tag north of $300,000, the Black Series is more suited to a race track than the stop lights and parking garages of Ballston, where Ovechkin makes his 1.2-mile commute to work.

Still, when he heard that EuroMotorcars of Germantown had one of the 350 cars in stock, Ovechkin went for a test drive. Then he asked a staffer to drive it, so he could watch and listen to the vehicle. And he left with the car that night.

"It was obvious that he likes speed," said Jon Charles, the salesman who helped Ovechkin. "That was clear."

That's also clear to the fans who attend practices, and then watch Ovechkin blast off down the parking ramp, which Leonsis's office overlooks. The owner had a talk with Ovechkin about this, too.

"I said, 'Your safety is really important to everyone,' " Leonsis recalled telling his star. "And I know it's fun when you have a fast car. I mean, I get it. I've been guilty of it too. I've bought fast cars. But it's your safety. And it's your mom and dad and your brother. And it's your life. Slow down just a little bit. Still have the car. Just slow it down just a little bit."

Ovechkin -- who famously declared that speed limits in the District were suspended the day he was handed a key to the city -- now tells reporters that he drives carefully and follows speed limits. He described his love for fast cars matter-of-factly, as if it's self-evident.

"You have good computer and fast Internet, or slow Internet?" he asked a reporter last week. "It's the same, probably."

But the flash is undoubtedly part of his appeal, especially in a league whose players have had a reputation for buttoned-up propriety. After he signed with IMG this fall, the agency began working on his brand profile; the "frame of reference" they settled on was labeled "young mavericks," with Ovechkin compared to such figures as musician Kanye West, tennis player Rafael Nadal and Michael Jordan. The document refers to him as "Superman on skates."

Ovechkin said he doesn't consider himself famous, saying "I'm just a hockey player," but the crowds tell a different story. During one trip to Vancouver, the team smuggled Ovechkin out a back door to avoid the mob. "At my advanced age, it reminded me of how the Beatles must have been when they first came to New York," his coach, Bruce Boudreau, said.

Ovechkin has had to adapt to the realities of such a life. During this winter's Olympics in Vancouver, he pushed away two video cameras when he didn't want to be filmed; both times the footage wound up on the Internet. One friend in Washington said Ovechkin has asked him to go examine photos taken by fans in a restaurant. But acquaintances say he retains an inherent approachability unusual for someone who makes $9 million a year.

"He's more down to earth than any of the other athletes in Washington," said a manager at a prominent downtown club. "He's just a really chill dude. He's not out of control or nothing like that. Just quiet, takes pictures with fans. . . . He just looks like a normal guy."

His misshapen nose, perpetual scruff and prominent gap-tooth seem more suited for a Saskatchewan beer league than a Fortune 500 portfolio, and his fashion repertoire is filled with ripped jeans and T-shirts.

"Shabby chic, hobo riche," one teammate said.

Ovechkin lives much of the year with his parents and his older brother. His mom cooks him dumplings and stuffed cabbage rolls, does his laundry and presses his clothes -- "the normal environment where kids would live with their parents, very typical," she said. His father accompanies him to the sauna. And the parents, whose son began showing up on Russian sports programs at the age of 16, said they warn him of the perils of celebrity.

"Tatiana and I told him from the beginning to be very cognizant, don't think too high of yourself, don't ever be stuck up," his father said. "And if you're ever gonna act likewise, you might as well hang up your skates. You will never be able to practice, you will never have that hunger to achieve even more. Be yourself, and be respectful, and that's it."

On top of the morning

The Capitals are fond of saying that Ovechkin never has a bad day. When he arrives at the practice facility at 8 in the morning and teammates are still groggy, he's screaming good morning! "Sometimes you wonder if he ever sleeps," Laich said.

"You can hear him through the whole dressing room, through the facility, all day, just yelling," Shaone Morrisonn said. "I don't know what he's yelling, but he's yelling."

All of which made February and March outliers from the Alex Ovechkin mystique of exuberant joy. First came the Olympics. Ovechkin didn't get a medal and was criticized by some media members for not giving enough time to the English-language press, while his arch rival, Sidney Crosby, scored the gold-medal-winning goal for Canada.

"That's a very sore question," said his mother, asked about Ovechkin's post-Olympic mood. "He kept it within himself for a while, for quite a while, but now it seems to be just simply kind of somewhere forgotten. Currently it's history."

Then came his second suspension for a shove of Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell, who ended up with a broken collarbone, a fractured rib and a concussion. That incident unleashed a flood of attention; players across the league were asked whether Ovechkin was dirty, columnists weighed in and TV analysts debated the question. Some of the language painted Ovechkin not as relentless but as reckless, or even as a villain.

"I kill somebody? Why am I a bad guy?" Ovechkin asked, rejecting the charge. "How I said, it's different minds. Everybody have a different mind."

Boudreau -- an ardent defender of his star -- was dismayed by the criticism, saying there isn't "a greater person or hockey player" in the world. The coach worried that the disciplinarians would squelch Ovechkin's love of the game. And indeed, when he returned from his league-imposed break, Ovechkin scored just two goals in his next eight games, his worst "slump" in more than a year. Finally, Boudreau called Ovechkin into his office.

"The only thing I talked about is that he's got to be himself," the coach said. "He worries about it, and he doesn't want to hurt anybody, he just wants to play hard. He was playing like he was worried about hurting people. To get him to be his best, he's got to play the way he can play."

In early January, Ovechkin was named captain. He had long been the Capitals' emotional leader -- "that whole team has sort of taken on his personality," Pothier said -- but this formalized the arrangement. After that announcement, the Capitals won 17 of their next 18 games. Ovechkin was later asked whether Leonsis had told him anything about wearing the captain's 'C' on his uniform, about changing his personality as he further embodies this franchise.

"I'm still the same guy, it doesn't matter," Ovechkin said. "If people gonna change, maybe it's not gonna be a good change. So he just tell me just be yourself."

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