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800 goals ago, Alex Ovechkin was a rookie in need of a roommate

Alex Ovechkin looks back at his rookie year with fondness, not only because it was his first shot in the NHL but also because of the players who welcomed him with open arms. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
7 min

When Brian Willsie saw his former roommate at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre in October, it was almost as if no time had passed since they last saw each other. There was laughter. There were jokes. Alex Ovechkin asked about Willsie’s life, and Willsie did the same.

Willsie spent 10 years in the NHL, including three with Washington, and was Ovechkin’s first roommate during the 2005-06 season. He saw the very start of Ovechkin’s milestone-studded career — when a gregarious, energetic 20-year-old took the league by storm with his fearless physicality and generational talent.

Willsie, who was looked at as Ovechkin’s “North American older brother,” is still watching Ovechkin from afar 17 years later and remains in awe of his former roommate as he chases Wayne Gretzky’s goal-scoring record.

“He has such a commitment and enthusiasm about him,” Willsie said. “There is a relentless style of [playing like] he is just not going to be denied. If anybody said he can’t do it, then he was going to find a way to do it.”

Ovechkin scored his 800th goal Tuesday night in Chicago. He is two goals shy of passing Gordie Howe (801) for second on the NHL’s all-time list and 95 goals from breaking Gretzky’s record.

Alex Ovechkin scores 800th NHL goal, stands one behind Gordie Howe

Willsie was there for the Russian’s first goal and knew from the start there was “something special” about the Capitals’ No. 1 draft pick in 2004. When Willsie looks at Ovechkin now, he still sees the excitement, passion and love for the game. But some things do change.

“He is not a little kid anymore,” Willsie said with a laugh. “He was always bigger than me, but now he is the man with a family, and he has got a lot of distractions. Everyone probably asks him about [the goals record] every day, but over the years just to stay focused and do what he does all the time is another credit to him, and to have that singular goal is pretty cool.”

Former Capitals coach Glen Hanlon matched the pair up, casually asking Willsie one day at practice. Ovechkin wanted a North American roommate so his English could improve as quickly as possible, and Hanlon thought Willsie would be an ideal candidate for the job. Willsie thought the same.

“I thought it would be pretty cool,” Willsie said. “I came from Colorado, where there were superstars like Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy. I had kind of seen that and been around that. So to come in there and see a budding superstar happen, it was neat. We were buddies, but at the same time, he always had a million questions about just routines on the roads and dinner and travel.”

Willsie was there to show Ovechkin how to be an NHL player, how to enjoy himself on the road and how to make the most of his budding career.

“I will never forget what he did for me my first year, and that experience that I have will stay with me forever,” Ovechkin said.

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One of Willsie’s most important jobs on the road? Helping Ovechkin find the nearest Starbucks on game days. Ovechkin doesn’t drink a lot of coffee now, but at the time, he was obsessed with mochas, Willsie recalled.

(Ovechkin was quick to clarify: “White chocolate mochas.”)

Ovechkin’s sweet tooth was also evident after dinners on the road. When players returned to their hotel rooms for the night, they would often order dessert, such as cookies or ice cream. Willsie was usually in charge of ordering for the pair. One night, Willsie made Ovechkin pick up the phone.

“He was always uncomfortable about his English back then, and I said, ‘It is your turn to order dessert,’ and he said, ‘No, it is not,’ and then it was sort of a staring contest after 10 or 20 minutes,” Willsie said. “He really, really wanted it, and so he eventually did, and he was … not happy that I didn’t do it, but he got through it.”

From 2018: Alex Ovechkin, on the verge of 1,000th NHL game, looks back at his first 82

The highlights of Ovechkin’s rookie year were plentiful — and Willsie witnessed them all. One stretch of road games in mid-January will always stick out — and not just for Willsie but for other former teammates, including Brian Sutherby and Jeff Halpern.

The Capitals’ annual rookie dinner party came during their road swing through Dallas, Anaheim and Phoenix. Ovechkin had scored the Capitals’ lone goal in a loss to Dallas and all three goals, including the overtime winner, in a victory over Anaheim. Then the team set off to Phoenix for its next game — and the rookie dinner party.

At dinner, there was buzz about defenseman Brendan Witt. His time with Washington was nearing its end, but his teammates encouraged him to sign another contract. Soon, a “One more year!” chant broke out.

Fast-forward to the Phoenix game, a Capitals win in which Ovechkin scored a showstopping, highlight-reel goal on his back that became an instant classic. In the celebration that ensued, Ovechkin started to yell in the pile on the ice.

“One more year!” he shouted. “One more year!”

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“I thought that was so cool,” Halpern said. “One of the most iconic goals of his career, and it showed what kind of fun and energetic personality he had and how much he just loved the guys on the team.”

Said Willsie: “That week was Alex. He was so excited both being around the team and basically single-handedly willing us to two wins. That road trip encapsulates him.”

Ovechkin looks back at his rookie year with fondness, not only because it was his first shot in the NHL but also because of the players who welcomed him with open arms. One of his first group outings came a week or two before training camp in 2005, when some players set out on a fishing charter boat for the day. It was Ovechkin’s first time fishing, and Sutherby, now a scout for Washington, remembers he was like a “kid in a candy store.”

“He showed up in skintight, super-tight jean shorts that were cutoffs,” Sutherby said. “And we are talking early 2000s, so I think they are back in style now, but they were certainly not then. … He was just willing to do anything to be a part of the group.”

From the start, Ovechkin had infectious energy, and he let his personality shine. But not everything went smoothly. Ovechkin’s recklessly physical style had consequences, and he often returned to the team hotel with various ailments. But he wouldn’t complain.

Svrluga, from 2021: Ovechkin is still improving, and teammates have ‘never seen anything like it’

“Watching him play through bumps and bruises … and knowing that if he didn’t play those games then we were in trouble,” Willsie said. “He didn’t want to let his group down, and I think we all have that in us, but to watch him do that the first year and every year is something that I took from him. Even if you are not 100 percent, you learn your team needs you, and there are some things you can play through.”

Years later, that mentality has Ovechkin in position to chase down Gretzky, playing through ailments while scoring goals with the same enthusiasm with which he scored his first — and his second, third, fourth and every goal after that.

“There is nothing,” Willsie said, “that can hold him back.”