EDMONTON, CANADA — The line snaked behind the locked doors inside this local rink, kids dressed in their red No. 8 sweaters, adults readying their cell phones for pictures, one girl clutching a sign written in Russian. The Washington Capitals would soon begin practice, a decent enough attraction for a Tuesday afternoon in late October and reasonable cause for this sizable turnout. But as several skaters took the ice, all eyes stayed drawn to the tunnel, searching for the main event, because when Alex Ovechkin visits Canada, everyone wants to look.
It’s why staffers at Leduc Recreation Centre moved folding tables toward the entrance for the post-practice autograph session. It’s why the local reporters and television cameras turned out, wondering the same things many have wondered since Coach Barry Trotz assumed control of the team. It’s why Trotz later estimated the number of questions received about his relationship with Ovechkin at “a thousand and one,” and why he probably understood each road trip this season would only add to the total.
So, to respond another time, with the unwavering answer Trotz has adopted since summer, yet kindly varied each time the question counter increases by one: “We get along great,” Trotz said. “He’s playing great, he’s been receptive. He’s an honest player. He tells you what he thinks and that’s all a player wants from a coach. He’s really been a pleasure to coach.”
Ovechkin had spoken earlier, in a hallway outside the dressing room Washington inhabited for the afternoon, fresh off the tarmac at Edmonton International Airport. The culture had already changed, Ovechkin said, and “the atmosphere in the locker room is unbelievable.” He declined to answer exactly what had changed, citing player-coach confidentiality, but preached the togetherness that has defined the rhetoric since Trotz took over.
“We just have to be not individuals, we have to be a group,” Ovechkin said, and later he added, “Changes already made. It’s not bad way change, it’s a good way. I like it a lot. It seems like everybody enjoy it.”
Trotz, too, answered the 1,002nd and 1,0003rd questions with enthusiasm. The Capitals had flown to Canada as the only remaining Eastern Conference team without a regulation loss, an early feather for the new regime’s cap, which probably helped the coach’s mood. But every query about Ovechkin had become a new chance for Trotz to laud his captain, and Tuesday proved no exception.
So, Coach, why left wing over right wing?
“Because he’s better there. He’s more dangerous there. He’s faster, he’s more dynamic, he has that 90 cut, he can throw pucks through people. He generates more speed and more opportunities over there. He gets locked a little bit on the right side, probably a little better defensively, but on the left side he’s dynamic. Why do you want to take away a person’s strength?”
But what about the defense? Shouldn’t that improve?
“If he plays the way he has, no. He’s been really strong. He’s had more big blocks on our team than any player on our team, probably to this point. I have no issues with him defensively. He’s bought in. Is he going to be more detailed as he goes along? Yeah. Absolutely. Every player, I can name a lot of players in every game that need to be more detailed. But he’s been really good defensively. If you said is Alex just average? No, he’s been strong defensively.”
“I don’t know, I wasn’t here. Sometimes it just happens. You’re pushing. Dominik Hasek said this to [Capitals goaltending coach] Mitch Korn one time: The top players start every year minus-10, just because they’re on late in games, those types of things, and you end up trying to create that offense, you’re the sixth guy offensively, so Dominik Hasek used to say you’re minus-10. How he got the other 25 I’m not that sure. But there are some things in his game that he has committed to change. Not all of them were Alex’s fault. Some of the things he was asked to do, he did and it probably took away from him defensively. It’s not the player. The player that I know has been really good in those areas. I don’t have any problem.”
Similar questions will surely arrive in Calgary, where Washington plays Saturday, and Vancouver, which hosts the Capitals the following day, and for the 38 road games that follow. Fans will turn out to see Ovechkin, some seeking autographs, others tossing boos. The cameras will track his moves across the ice. Rare are these trips to western Canada, but even rarer, it seems, are the pound-the-pulpit believers as enthusiastic as Trotz, who even when asked whether he enjoys coaching a strong defensive team or a strong offensive team more, pivoted his answer to No. 8.
“Winning’s fun to coach,” Trotz said. “Whatever wins for you. It’s just the winning part. That trumps everything. A great shot trumps everything. You can say, ‘Hey we defend here, we defend there, can a goalie make that save?’ A great shot trumps everything. Alexander Ovechkin coming down the wing, he snaps off one of those that goes under the bar, that trumps everything.”