A year and a half ago, before a labor dispute canceled an entire season and reduced the NHL from America's No. 4 major sports league to something even less, the Washington Capitals won the league's annual draft lottery. Seeking confirmation on how he should use the No. 1 overall choice two months later, General Manager George McPhee called Ross Mahoney, the club's director of amateur scouting. McPhee had barely started the conversation when Mahoney responded: "It's Ovechkin. It's got to be Ovechkin."
Some hockey observers considered Alexander Ovechkin the most talented prospect since Mario Lemieux made his debut for Pittsburgh in 1984. "He doesn't follow the puck," former Capital and current TV analyst Craig Laughlin said of Ovechkin, "the puck follows him."
But until now -- in fact, until 7 o'clock tonight when the Capitals open the 2005-06 season at MCI Center against Columbus -- the talk about Ovechkin has been purely speculative: The 20-year-old who is potentially the Capitals' best all-around offensive player ever has been seen only by a few fervent friends at practice and sparse crowds at exhibition games.
He is eager to play, even if he could have made more money in Russia this season. The lockout that postponed his rookie season cost the NHL in prestige and the players in earning power because of a downsized pay scale. Yet Ovechkin was determined to make his pilgrimage to what he still considers the Promised Land.
He is coming from Moscow, where hockey is religion, to Washington, where the church of hockey is known for its empty pews.
None of this matters to him, he insisted.
"This is the best league in the world," he said, "and I feel that I should play in the best league in the world. Money is not an issue and you cannot buy happiness."
He brings a lovely look of innocence, as if hardly old enough to shave, blue-eyed with often disheveled dark hair, his leisure clothes an odd mix of colors. Importantly to the Caps, however, he brings the perfect blend of ambition and a rookie's right attitude.
"I want to win the Stanley Cup," he said in English, which he has been practicing only a year. "I want to be the best, just the best. I must work. I must learn. Help my team. Play hockey, that's all. Hockey is my life, you know. If I do not play hockey, I do not know what I do."
For the Capitals, the Stanley Cup is nowhere on the horizon. Their problems are daunting, winning back fans and simply winning games because almost all their name players have been let go and they are starting basically from scratch. The Capitals may be facing, in reality, a second silent winter.
If Ovechkin turns out to be the Capitals' top player, and he may well be right away, it could be enough to generate some interest in the team and its future. He could be that good.
He is the kind of talent that always seems to end up with the legendary clubs -- Detroit, Montreal. But with luck, a seemingly star-crossed franchise got him.
In an exhibition game last Friday, he scored four points -- three goals and an assist. The next night, he got a goal and two assists. In another game, opponents held him four times, giving the Capitals power-play opportunities. He has been the obvious talent that made scouts' hearts pound through their sweaters.
But playing on a lesser team than Pittsburgh's more ballyhooed rookie Sidney Crosby, this year's top choice, Ovechkin will experience the greater burden, and his individual stats may be less impressive. The Penguins have surrounded their prospect, no doubt to his benefit, with an array of stars, Lemieux being the brightest. One day recently, about 20 cameras were clicking Crosby during a Penguins practice.
A full-page photo of "Kid Crosby" appears in the October Vanity Fair with the pronouncement that he is "the game's best prospect in 20 years."
Ovechkin has been preparing in comparative solitude. But he certainly knows what he wants (with no apology to Crosby).
"I want to be rookie of the year," he said.
Physically, Ovechkin is the ideal attacker at 6 feet 2, 212 pounds, built like a building, although anything but stationary. A powerful right-handed shooter from the left wing, he also can dip his shoulder and accelerate toward the net literally in the time a defender can move a muscle. Ovechkin possesses the gift of instinct bestowed only on the great ones -- he can anticipate where the action will be and get there ahead of it.
Yet Ovechkin, who helped lead Moscow Dynamo to the Russian Super League title last year, has come to the United States with fewer guarantees than he already had in his homeland. For someone like him, coming to America is not necessarily what it was a generation ago. Back then, it meant freedom to breathe the air. It meant astounding wealth immediately. Then, if an athlete defected from a communist country, it was big news; in the United States, some saw it as more evidence that our way of life was better than their way of life.
For the athlete, it was a dream come true.
It's not nearly the same, of course, in 2005. There was money to be made where Ovechkin was, plenty of it.
After Dynamo won its title, league rival Avangard, in Omsk, signed him to a deal that reportedly would have earned him significantly more than he will make in his first three years in the NHL. Ovechkin is said to have passed up a guaranteed minimum of at least $1.8 million plus bonuses, tax-free, this season in Omsk when he exercised an out clause in that contract to sign for three years with the Capitals. With them he will be guaranteed a comparatively modest (as athletes' salaries go) $984,200 per year, the NHL's new maximum base salary for a first-year player. Performance incentives -- ones he realistically can achieve -- could boost his season's gross to $1.7 million or so. At best, though, the NHL for Ovechkin means a pay cut.
Obviously then, there's still magic in coming to America. It's still where plenty of things are happening. And it's cool to be in a place where something's happening. And for a hockey player, that still means the NHL.
Ovechkin comes by his athletic skills honestly. His mother Tatiana is the most decorated athlete in the family. She won the Olympic gold medal twice in basketball for the Soviet Union, in 1976 and 1980, and is now president of Dynamo's women's basketball team.
Ovechkin calls her "my first coach" and "a great sportsman." Her husband, Mikhail, played professional soccer and now assists her as a Dynamo official. The father tells the son: "If team wins and you score, you are good. If you score three goals and team loses, no good. You must play hard so team wins."
Ovechkin's parents have rented an apartment in the District and are staying a month to help him get adjusted. When they go home to Moscow, they will also leave behind another son, Mikhail, 23, who will study English and keep Alex company -- or, as Alex said with a smile, "always watch me." The oldest of three brothers, Sergei, who took it upon himself when Alex was 8 to sign him up for a youth hockey team, was killed in a car crash several years ago; of him Alex will not speak except to say that he thinks of him "all the time."
One day recently after practice, the parents accompanied Alex from the Capitals' facility at Piney Orchard, near Odenton, to Annapolis to take care of one of the necessities of his relocation: He applied for a Social Security card.
"He has worked very hard, and we have helped him to work hard since the very first day he started to play hockey," Tatiana said through an interpreter. "It was always his dream, from the first day he was on skates, to play in the NHL. As a little boy, he always asked us to buy him hockey cards and such wherever we went. [Wayne] Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were among his favorites. He watched videocassettes of the best of Gretzky and Lemieux, and when he saw them playing he decided if he was going to play hockey then he was going to play hockey in the NHL."
He had accomplished as much at a young age as any Russian or Soviet player since the goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, who retired in 1984 after 15 seasons with the Central Red Army Club and now is in hockey's Hall of Fame. Tatiana said that her son's experience with Dynamo since the age of 16 and his being named to the Russian national team when he was only 17 "has given him a lot of strength and belief in himself."
His new Capitals teammates can see that, especially when playing against him in practice.
"You have to honor his skills, you give him less room to play with the puck," rookie defenseman Nolan Yonkman said. "I keep on him harder than anybody else, not give him any time, that's what I try to do. When the season begins, I want to get him the puck as much as I possibly can."
"He's a positive guy, usually in a good mood, polite, nice," said 27-year old Dainius Zubrus, who grew up in Lithuania, speaks Russian and has been helping Ovechkin get settled. "He realizes that this hockey is quite a bit different from what he played before. He asks different questions. He wants to learn."
Ovechkin is happy to play the rookie's role.
Accompanying Olie Kolzig, Jeff Halpern and Zubrus to the D.C. Armory to help serve a meal to hurricane evacuees two weeks ago, he carried a large box of pucks and T-shirts to be given away while the others went empty-handed.
"At this point, the veterans like this guy," McPhee said. "They like what he brings. They like the way he carries himself. They like the way he competes. He's not a prima donna.
"It's everything you want to see from a team perspective, or coaching perspective. It's what you're hoping for, and it looks like we've got it. We just hope he stays the same kid."
Ovechkin was asked: What would he be like if he should become a star, a celebrity?
Unhesitatingly, he gave an answer that should encourage not only McPhee but also sports fans who believe that a pro athlete should be a role model, or at least behave himself.
"Nothing changes," he said. "If you are a great hockey player, you must be a great man."
"It's a really nice city, wonderful people, I really like it here," Ovechkin was saying into his cell phone, doing the first of two interviews, one for an online chat, the other with a local radio station.
From listening to his answers, it was easy to discern the questions:
"Yes, I feel comfortable. . . . Yes, I enjoy the weather. . . . I feel fine. . . . Yes, in Russia, we have big ice and here it is small ice and a more physical game. . . . Yes, I'm looking forward to playing against Crosby, but just as much I'm looking forward to playing against all the other players in the NHL. . . . The coach knows best. . . . Spaghetti."
Sometimes Ovechkin has questions of his own.
To a Capitals publicist he inquired: "Do I have to go some place to pay this?"
He had gotten his first parking ticket.
He drives a new white Cadillac Escalade, which should ease his commute to Piney Orchard for practice after he moves to a home he bought in Arlington.
Besides, his long drive to practice and back will be temporary. This time next year, the Capitals expect to be in a new practice rink under construction in Arlington. Ovechkin preferred to get settled in one place right away.
For his 20th birthday, on Sept. 17, his mother cooked meat and soup, and later toasted her son. "Be yourself," she said, raising a glass. "You come to a new city, a new country, new people, just enjoy it."
"I want to enjoy," he added, "to enjoy this time, enjoy the team, enjoy the NHL."
He had to admit, though, he was nervous making his first appearance for the Capitals. On Sept. 21, he took the ice at MCI Center for an exhibition game against Buffalo. Only a few thousand people were in the seats to see the team's new No. 8. That was his mother's number, too, when she played basketball. He wears a gold chain with two gold pendants, a crucifix and a No. 8.
"When I play the first period," he said, "I cannot believe I play in the NHL. I take the puck and my hands are, like, I can't do this. Second period, I feel good."
He proved he could be physical, knocking one of the Sabres into the boards and taking control of the puck.
But the way defenders double-teamed him, making things as difficult for him as they could, suggested this was how it would be throughout the regular season. He did well, anyway, and last Friday at MCI Center, he did even better.
Late that afternoon, he drove through the city in his sport-utility vehicle, Russian techno music blaring, no one recognizing him except for a recent acquaintance who pulled up alongside and waved. Ovechkin waved back. He kept time to the sounds, clearing his mind to play.
And play he did -- although it was against a makeshift Penguins team resting its best players. He found the back of the net on two rebounds and a turnover -- his shots were hard and precise. Although he prefers to crash the net, he uncorked a slap shot from the point that might have been a fourth goal, but he happily settled for the assist when it deflected off Halpern's stick.
Reporters surrounded him afterward, one asking if four points made this a time to celebrate.
He looked puzzled.
"We have next game tomorrow," he said.
He amiably answered more questions, except for one he didn't understand, then headed for the showers, looking very much at home. He's been getting more and more comfortable.
One day recently, he was relaxed and talking with a reporter in a room at Piney Orchard. Suddenly, there was a pounding at the door and a voice on the other side: "Let me in. Let me in."
It was Zubrus.
"He is my ride," Zubrus said, bursting in. "I am late already. I must catch a train."
A train? It sounded dubious, but, indeed, Zubrus had to make a quick trip to Philadelphia and wanted Ovechkin to drop him at the BWI rail station.
Zubrus got behind the wheel of Ovechkin's SUV.
"He doesn't know the way," Zubrus said.
But how would Ovechkin find his way back from BWI?
When he got his SUV, Ovechkin programmed three pertinent destinations into its navigation system: his parents' apartment, Piney Orchard and MCI Center.
The rookie from afar was not about to lose his way.