Alex Ovechkin and the Russian Capitals help countrymen transition to rookie camp

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; 12:18 AM

In planning for his third rookie camp since he was drafted in 2008, Dmitry Kugryshev knew he wanted to come to Washington early - not a week or few days early, but almost a month prior to the start of official practices - to train and work with the Washington Capitals' strength and conditioning coaches.

But Kugryshev, 20, needed a place to stay, so he called Alex Ovechkin.

Ovechkin, who spent the offseason in Russia, won't return to the Washington area until later this week, but he didn't hesitate to help his young teammate and fellow countryman.

"He just said, 'No problem,' " said Kugryshev, who stayed at the Arlington house with Ovechkin's older brother Mikhail, until rookie camp formally began this past weekend. "It's good to have Ovie's help. It's better when I come early for me to stay there than be alone. We can talk in Russian all day, have fun . . . it's more like home."

Over the past three seasons, Ovechkin and his family have welcomed young Russian prospects to their home and lives, helping them acclimate to the Capitals' organization and North American culture while providing a connection to the familiar aspects of home. While some organizations fear Russian prospects will have difficulty assimilating, the Capitals feel emboldened by their informal support network.

In 2008, Kugryshev and Semyon Varlamov arrived for their first rookie camp and Ovechkin played host for meals, sightseeing and arranged outings for the group. It was particularly helpful for Varlamov, who did not speak any English when he arrived and is still not completely comfortable with the language.

"Ovie let me stay in his house and would explain what everything is about," Varlamov said through Washington goaltending coach Arturs Irbe, who served as an interpreter. "I could ask any question and get answers, even on daily chores. At the beginning, having things like getting Russian food - when I was first converting from Russia to the U.S. - made me feel more at home. It was a big help, because I only have to worry about hockey."

Varlamov stayed at the house again upon his return to Washington this August, until he found his own apartment. Even after he moved out, he continued to provide rides to the rink for Kugryshev, who is hoping to earn a regular role with the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears this season.

While adjusting to American life has many hurdles, the language barrier is probably the most daunting.

"It makes most everyone feel better, just to have your language and guys from your country who understand you," said Nikita Kashirsky, 25, a longtime friend of Ovechkin's and invitee to Capitals rookie camp who moved to the United States when he was 17 for school and speaks English fluently. "It's always tough when guys first come over, so I always try to help especially with English. If I were in the same boat now, I'd want somebody to help me."

As both a role model and a host, Ovechkin provides the Capitals with additional appeal for Russian prospects that is beneficial around draft time. Some NHL teams are hesitant to use draft picks on Russian players, many of whom may prefer to stay home and play in the Kontinental Hockey League, but the Capitals have no such reluctance.

Washington selected forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov (first round, 26th overall) and Stanislav Galiev (third round, 86th) in this year's entry draft.

"We have to take advantage of the Ovechkin effect," General Manager George McPhee said. "We're not trying to fill the roster with players from one particular country, but when you're selecting at the end of the first round, because of the success we've had and a player like Kuznetsov is available, who's just as good or ahead of those taken in front of him, we're going to go get him."

Those players not only bring talent to the organization; they become additional building blocks on a foundation.

"It's like something from generation to generation that must be passed on, this helping hand," Varlamov said. "It started with Ovie, but it has to go on."

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