I once was chatting with a former teammate of Alex Ovechkin’s, a veteran who had skated with Washington’s captain hundreds of times. The thing that most amazed this ex-teammate wasn’t Ovechkin’s skill or his speed or his shot. It was his relentlessness.
“The way he plays, most guys would be burnt out after 30 games, 40 games,” that teammate told me. “I’ve been watching him play for five years now and just waiting — like, my God, when is this guy gonna run out of gas? … It’s really unexplainable. I don’t know how he does it — if it’s his conditioning, or he’s just a freak, just his natural God-given ability. He doesn’t slow down.”
That was Brian Pothier, wondering when Ovechkin would run out of gas. And he was asking the question nearly seven years ago. Has it happened yet? I mean, did you watch Ovechkin Monday night in Montreal?
This was classic late-era Russian Machine. An unstoppable blast from his power-play home. A three-point night in one of the league’s most electric venues. A perfect sense of the moment, tying Maurice Richard with 544 career goals in the Rocket’s home town. A hint at more magic to come, with Ovechkin now sitting on 999 points, just as career-long foil Sidney Crosby is set to arrive Wednesday night for a nationally televised showdown. And a perfect post-game response.
“It means I’m getting older,” he said of his overflowing list of accomplishments. “I just remember my first year, my first game, [like] it was five minutes ago. Time move forward, and time move quick. So you just have to enjoy every second, every moment.”
Please listen to his advice. There are so many Ovechkin milestones now that you wonder which deserve your attention. Nine days into a new year, he already has tied the NHL’s record for overtime winners, moved into the top 30 in career goals and equaled Richard. In that cacophony of calculations, does 1,000 points matter?
“Are you [bleeping] kidding me?” teammate Justin Williams asked. “A thousand points! It’s remarkable, especially in this day and age. It’s amazing. I won’t get there — and I’ve played a lot more years than he has. You tip your cap to the longevity and the consistency.”
Williams is right. Ovechkin has provided so much to marvel at. So many years of power-play terror, even when other teams knew what was coming. So many defensemen he blew past, like he was on a downhill slope no one else could see. So many unthinkable changes to Washington’s hockey culture.
Lost in all of that is an appreciation for Ovechkin’s constancy. He has slowed some, and he doesn’t play with the frenzy he did at 24. But there’s still an inevitability to Ovechkin, a permanence so ingrained we don’t even notice it. You flip on the TV and he’s there, 879 times since he entered the league. He so often plays like a man with one period of hockey left in his life — even now he leads the Caps in hits — yet he’s also 12th in games played since he entered the NHL. Ovechkin has never missed more than 10 games over the past 11 seasons; just five other NHL players can say the same thing.
“And it’s not only that; it’s how he plays — playing every night and the way he plays,” ESPN analyst Barry Melrose said. “He leads the team in hits most nights, big hits. He scores ugly goals. He’s in front of the net getting hacked and whacked. Look at Steven Stamkos: he’s had three major injuries already. And here’s Ovi, he plays 70-some games every year. … You guys are blessed, and we do take it for granted.”
Maybe the 31-year-old Ovechkin deserves credit for this, or maybe it’s just in his genes. Maybe he’s gotten lucky, the reverse of Crosby, who has suffered through years of unfortunate breaks. Maybe the dependability is forgotten because so much of what Ovechkin does is flashy and dramatic, because he’s a neon yellow locomotive and you don’t stop to think about how reliably that roaring engine runs.
People in the game notice, though. I asked Jay Beagle about Ovechkin’s snowballing list of achievements, and he immediately mentioned the captain’s constitution, calling it “remarkable.”
“I don’t think he gets enough credit for the minutes he plays, keeping himself healthy, playing as many games as he has,” Beagle said. “He sometimes gets a bad rap, but seeing him from the inside and seeing what he does and how hard he works, it’s a special thing. … When you just read some [of the criticism], for us it’s kind of funny. We see the other side of it, and it’s what a lot of people don’t see.”
So stop for a minute and gawk at the most under-the-radar part of Ovechkin’s career: its persistence. He’s the only guy in the NHL with at least 56 points for 11 years running. He’s averaged a point a game nine times in that span, twice more than any other winger. He has hit 80 points seven times already; only Crosby has done it as many times since they entered the league together. And as a result, Ovechkin — a goal scorer, remember, not a distributor — will become just the 22nd player to reach 1,000 points before finishing his 12th season. He’ll likely finish this season 16th or 17th in career points through 12 seasons, and none of the men above him played in this era.
He’s not exactly an iron man, but he doesn’t seem to dent; “kind of like running half-speed into a tree,” another ex-teammate once said, when I asked what colliding with Ovechkin felt like. The stories abound.
“His durability is phenomenal, incredible, with how hard he plays,” said Brooks Laich, who played with Ovechkin for more than a decade. “People don’t realize how much stuff he plays through. I saw him have 10 stitches in his thigh from a game [two nights] before, and then score four goals and an assist the next night. Nobody knew that. We didn’t even know if he could bend his knee. He had stitches in his upper thigh, and he goes out and has four goals and an assist.”
And he’s done it all with one franchise, a modern oddity that adds to this feeling of perpetuity.
“Listen, Alex kind of encapsulates the D.C. area,” Williams said. “I mean, there’s not a more noticeable athlete in all of D.C. than Ovi — maybe even down the East Coast. Everyone knows who he is. He’s defined with the Washington Capitals. Only the great ones have an opportunity to do that.”
None of this is to take away from his skill and strength, which are similarly outlandish. Pair them with his constancy, and the record books have no chance. “I get lucky to be part of history,” he said this week. He isn’t the only one.
The milestones should keep piling up for years; 600 goals and 1,000 games could both arrive next season. But this is a big one. And it got here faster than any of us could have expected, thanks to a player who just won’t run out of gas.