His mother swears this story is true: When Alexander Ovechkin was a 2-year-old toddler, she brought him to a toy store. Those were the dwindling days of the Soviet Union, when stores didn't have as much as today. But they had toy hockey sticks and they had toy helmets and little Sasha, as he is called, waddled right over to them and wouldn't let go.
Don't believe it? "We have a picture with him wearing tights and holding a hockey stick," his mother, Tatyana, insists.
Sixteen years later, Sasha Ovechkin still won't let go of the hockey stick -- and should any opponent make the mistake of letting him get the puck he won't let go of that either. The little boy from the Soviet toy store has grown up into the slap-shot sensation of Russian hockey and the top prospect in the world. If all goes according to plan, the Washington Capitals will make him the No. 1 pick today in the NHL draft.
What they will get in Ovechkin will be a 6-foot-2, 212-pound forward who, according to the scouting reports, represents the "complete package." He's big and quick and doesn't flinch from physical play. He's a hustler with a devastating stick and equally effective on defense. Some gush that he may be the second coming of Mario Lemieux.
"They ask him all the time, 'What are your strong points?' " said Sergei Isakov, a family friend and Russian representative for Ovechkin's agent. "Everything," Isakov answered with a laugh. "For today, he's one of the best players for his age and everyone recognizes that in two years he'll be an NHL star."
People have been telling Ovechkin that for so long that he betrays no worries about taking on the best the NHL has to offer. "What's scary about that?" he asked after practice one day recently at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium. "If you're scared, you shouldn't even go out on the rink."
With just the barest peach fuzz on his 18-year-old chin and a few stubborn pimples left on his ruddy cheeks, Ovechkin somehow does not sound cocky when he says that, only determined. "I have to be self-confident. Let the other guys be worried."
That's Tatyana Ovechkina's son. Growing up in a simple, two-bedroom flat on the 10th floor of a plain Soviet-era apartment building in northwestern Moscow, Sasha inherited a zeal for competition. His mother was a two-time Olympic basketball champion, first in 1976, then in 1980, and today coaches the Dynamo Moscow women's basketball team. His father, Mikhail, once played professional soccer.
"They had a huge influence on him," said Ilya Nikulin, 22, a friend and fellow hockey player. "They would always push him forward and stand next to him constantly. . . . He wants very much to live up to their legacy."
When he was a child, they would always push him out the door to go play on nearby soccer fields or basketball courts. "Almost every day we were running around, playing soccer, playing all sorts of sports," recalled Misha Batanov, 18, a childhood friend. "He doesn't need to prove anything or follow anyone's footsteps. He's going to be a champion."
By the time Sasha was 8, he was enrolled in hockey school. By 10, he was collecting hockey player cards and dreaming of the NHL. By 16, he was playing for Dynamo Moscow's professional hockey team.
By 17, he had so impressed the foreign scouts that the Florida Panthers tried unsuccessfully to draft him when he was still two days short of turning 18 by the NHL eligibility deadline, arguing that he qualified because four leap years had passed during his lifetime.
Last season with Dynamo, Ovechkin scored a team-high 13 goals in 53 games in Russia's Super League and was credited with 10 assists as well. Last month, he was named to Russia's 26-member World Cup of Hockey squad.
Anyone who doubts his desire should just ask him about the upcoming World Cup championship. "We'll win," he predicted simply, leaving no room for doubt.
Such an attitude impresses the Capitals. Russian hockey emphasizes speed and technique over contact but Ovechkin on the ice often resembles a North American player in his willingness to mix it up. "I can play physical hockey," he said in Russian. "I'm friends with my body and I like to play physical."
"He has a young spirit and a fearlessness," said Nikulin. "He needs to grab the puck and keep it and always gets in the way of his opponents and spoils things for them."
Or as his proud mother put it, "He never loses his fights."
Fueling his will to win, according to family and friends, is the memory of his older brother, Sergei, who first introduced him to hockey. Sergei died at 25 in a car accident when Sasha was just 10, a tragedy that scarred the young boy so much he refuses to discuss it except to say he still thinks of his brother every day, particularly out on the ice.
"They were very close," said Nikulin. "The memory of his brother is something he plays for. But he doesn't talk about it, ever."
Tatyana Ovechkina, now 54, recalled those early days after Sergei's death, when her younger son Sasha would play the role of comforter. One day during one of his hockey games, she said, "He looked up at the stands where I'm sitting and he saw my eyes were bloated with tears and he ran up to me and told me, 'Mama, don't cry.' "
For Ovechkina, having a son leave to play in America represents a quirk of family fate. She grew up in an era when Russians challenged the Americans for dominance in international sports.
She still relishes the memory of beating the U.S. basketball team at the 1976 Olympics, where her Soviet team won the gold medal, and still regrets that the United States then boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
"I was very disappointed," she recalled. "It was a big pity. The Olympics weren't the Olympics without the Americans."
But the world has changed since then and she sees no irony in her son now heading off to the United States to play for an American team in the U.S. capital and earning the sort of capitalist big bucks that were never possible in her youth.
Ovechkin will be eligible for $1.3 million a year under the rookie salary cap, although incentive clauses could push that higher. He's already taken some English lessons and is thinking about buying a home and a BMW. Right now, he has to borrow his parents' car or bum rides from friends.
Russian hockey officials would like to get a little more of the Ovechkin windfall as well. Under an international agreement that expires this year, the NHL pays a Russian team about $250,000 in compensation for a player picked in the first round of the draft, but team executives here are pushing to negotiate a new, far more lucrative contract to take advantage of a rising star like Ovechkin.
"He doesn't cost $250,000 [to train] but much more than that," said Alexei Panfilov, sports director for Dynamo Moscow, which has not had a No. 1 NHL draft pick since the fall of the Soviet Union. "I would say $2.5 million. That's a fair price for Ovechkin. Ovechkins aren't born every year. To get one Ovechkin you need to bring up 10,000 hockey players."
Ovechkin himself seems a little lost in all the discussion of high finance. He still marvels that a Moscow restaurateur who recognized him came up to his table the other day and offered him a 15 percent discount card.
He may be a millionaire in the making but he still seems like a typical Russian teenager. He spends his sparse free time watching MTV or Russia's Sport television, gyrating with friends on the two-story dance floor at Pyramid nightclub off Pushkin Square or plowing through a plate of his favorite food, macaroni and meatloaf, a Soviet-era staple.
And then there are the video games. He seems to love them almost as much as hockey. His favorite is a shoot'em-up one called Counterstrike.
Is he any good at it?
He laughs. "The best."