LAS VEGAS — On Jan. 6, 2010, Alex Ovechkin emerged from the dressing room for warmups, second in line behind the goaltender, just like any other home game. While lacking in fanfare, that pregame twirl around the ice was Ovechkin’s introduction as captain, a “C” stitched onto his jersey for a first time as the Washington Capitals‘ face and best player and also their official leader. More than eight years later, Ovechkin will pull on a jersey with that same “C” on the chest before skating onto the T-Mobile Arena ice just one win away from a first Stanley Cup.
The double-edged sword of the captaincy means he shoulders the burden of criticism after repeated playoff disappointments yet basks in most of the glory of victory. If the Capitals, holding a 3-1 series lead in these best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals against the Vegas Golden Knights, are ultimately victorious, Ovechkin would be the first to hoist the trophy and the one to bring the Stanley Cup to Washington, a place he’s called his “second home.” But the moment will simultaneously resonate on the opposite side of the globe, Ovechkin’s Russian roots and the first home he so proudly represents. He is just the sixth Russian captain in NHL history, and he is on the cusp of becoming the first to win a championship.
For a professional sports league as international as the NHL, no other ethnicity has been as scrutinized as the Russians. First they were described as dour and robotic. Then they were considered too flashy, a bunch of divas who tended to be selfish and lazy. The xenophobic narrative has died down in recent years, and a Russian captain winning the Stanley Cup on a team with a Russian leading scorer and a top Russian defenseman would further diminish those stereotypes.
“It means a lot,” said the 32-year-old Ovechkin, wrapping up his 13th year in the league. “But we didn’t win yet, so let’s talk about it when we get it done. We’ll see.”
On Ovechkin’s mind these days: “Cars, hotels, you know, Vegas,” he said. While this 48-hour period between puck drops might be good for physical recovery, it’s also an excruciatingly long time to keep from thinking about what’s at stake in Thursday night’s Game 5 and how close it now is.
“To be honest, I think most of us have never been in this position,” Ovechkin said. “For me personally, I don’t try to think about it too much what’s going on and just try focusing on different things. But it’s hard.”
He and his teammates practiced in Las Vegas on Wednesday afternoon. There was Evgeny Kuznetsov standing beside Ovechkin, the two combining for 57 points this postseason, the first tandem of teammates with 12-plus goals apiece in a single playoff run since Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in 2009. Kuznetsov’s 31 points are the most these playoffs. On the opposite end of the ice stood Dmitry Orlov, who has averaged more than 24 minutes per game in these playoffs while playing against every opponent’s top forwards. Sitting in the stands — and ironically donning a red coat — was legendary Canadian hockey commentator Don Cherry, perhaps the most outspoken critic of Russian hockey players. He once called Ovechkin’s exuberant goal celebrations “goofy stuff,” and he’s not a fan of how Kuznetsov celebrates scoring by flapping his arms and imitating a bird.
Cherry once said Russian hockey “sucks,” and in 2013, he referred to Malkin as a “talented dog.” “He turns it on when he wants to turn it on,” Cherry said of the Penguins center and first Russian to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason’s MVP. The more recent narrative surrounding Russians is that they’d prefer to play in their country’s Kontinental Hockey League and teams should be hesitant to waste a draft pick on a player who’ll never come stateside.
“It’s hard to not read those interviews,” Kuznetsov said. “I talked with so many Russian players and they said, ‘You know, it’s a little bit tough and a different lifestyle and different hockey.’ ”
Thirty-nine Russians played at least one game in the NHL this season, including Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, the league’s third-leading scorer with 100 points, and Ovechkin, who tallied the most goals with 49. This talented current generation was ushered in by the Red Wings’ Russian Five from the early 1990s: Sergei Fedorov, Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Vyacheslav Kozlov. They defected from the communist Soviet Union and had to adjust to an unfamiliar Western culture. They then won the 1997 Stanley Cup.
“I knew how good they were,” said Scotty Bowman, who coached those Detroit teams. “You have to look at them as ordinary people who play hockey. I never worried about the politics over there.”
On Wednesday, after Ovechkin answered a series of questions in English, he was then surrounded by a handful of Russian reporters, fulfilling a second obligation. A few feet away, Kuznetsov sat at his stall, surprised to learn that Ovechkin could become the first Russian captain to win a Stanley Cup.
“Another history, right?” Kuznetsov said.