The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anyone whose dad laced up their skates feels Alex Ovechkin’s loss

Alex Ovechkin and his father, Mikhail, with the Stanley Cup at the Dynamo Hockey Club in Moscow. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
6 min

When Alex Ovechkin stood before his Washington Capitals teammates Tuesday and told them he was leaving, that his father was in Moscow and probably would die soon, T.J. Oshie felt it because he had already lived it.

“It was hard for me to sit there and not just go up there and give him a big hug,” Oshie said Wednesday, the day Ovechkin announced that his father Mikhail had passed away. “I think everyone goes through it different. But I have an idea of the emotions that he was feeling when he was speaking to us, the emotions that he was inevitably going to go through and what he’s going through now. It’s hard.”

Bonds with fathers are both universal and unique. Darn it if hockey dads don’t have an extra layer. Almost by definition, hockey requires parental help. There’s no rolling out a basketball and saying, “Go shoot.” There’s travel. There’s equipment. A 6-year-old can’t get started on his own. The hours invested quickly add up to months before they become years.

“They got to lace up your skates,” Oshie said. “They’ve got to put on your gear for you. There’s just so much time that those earliest memories that you have playing — your dad is there. He’s always there.”

Tom Wilson grew up in Toronto, where his father, Keven, helped build a rink in the backyard. It wasn’t meant to provide a path to the NHL. But would Wilson be in his 10th year in the league had his father not put in the time and effort?

“I don’t want to talk about it, because I’ll get pretty emotional,” Wilson said. “Everybody knows if they’re lucky enough to have a dad that’s there for them growing up, it’s a bond through hockey and family that you can’t really describe.”

Alex Ovechkin announces death of his father, Mikhail

Mikhail Ovechkin used to be a fixture at the Capitals’ Arlington training complex, helping himself to coffee, even wandering through the dressing room in the early years. He knew hardly any English. He communicated anyway. His facial expressions would go from resting dour to absolutely delighted when he encountered one of his son’s teammates. His ruddy face could reveal a broad and genuine smile.

“We both didn’t speak English in the beginning,” said veteran Nicklas Backstrom, a Swede, “but we could understand each other with our hands.”

By early 2014, Ovechkin was deep into his ninth season in the NHL, his ninth season in the United States. His parents spent much of the season in Washington with him. An annual highlight for Mikhail — a highlight for all Capitals fathers — was the yearly dads’ trip, a multi-city road swing in which the fathers tagged along to take in games and beers, not necessarily in that order.

That year, I went along to write about the experience, about the bonds not just between the fathers and their sons but the fathers and each other. Alex Ovechkin is and always will be the center of the Capitals’ solar system. In some ways, Mikhail Ovechkin played the same role with the fathers.

That year, the Caps entered the dads’ trip on a six-game losing streak. At the end of the first period of the first game at New Jersey, they trailed 1-0. And here came Mikhail Ovechkin, ready to change fortune. He grabbed a bottle of vodka. He lined up a row of glasses. And the dads knocked them back.

After a comeback fell short, the Capitals gathered for their chartered flight to Montreal. Dave Green, the bearish father of then-Caps defenseman Mike, sought out Mikhail. Neither spoke the other’s language.

“Parents is parents. They say, ‘How’s Sasha?’” Alex Ovechkin told me later, referring to his own nickname. “ ‘Good. Mike?’ ‘Good. Let’s go smoke.’”

So Dave Green and Mikhail Ovechkin burned cigarettes on the tarmac. A universal language, sharing a moment and an experience with their sons. They had, without having to say it, so much in common.

“I just remember hours and hours of playing on the outdoor rink in the freezing cold,” Oshie said. “You’re playing. Face is numb. Toes are numb. Can’t feel anything. You go inside for a hot chocolate, and you go right back out. A lot of that was with my dad.”

Capitals’ fathers come from all over the world to celebrate hockey, pride — and their sons

So when the Capitals finally won the Stanley Cup in 2018, Oshie wanted to share it with his father, Tim, who was by that point deep in a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

“I don’t know how many times we won the Stanley Cup together, me and my dad,” Oshie said, “whether it was before I could even skate playing knee hockey in the living room or when I got old enough to roller blade and do it in the backyard. . . . The feeling that we did it for real, it wasn’t a dream anymore, to share that with him probably one of the most meaningful, bonded embraces that we’ve ever had.”

What’s ahead for Ovechkin is a world with which he is unfamiliar, one without his father in it. He will miss games Thursday and Saturday — and here’s betting he doesn’t play Tuesday, either. But at some point there will be hockey again.

“That was the way of me coping with my dad’s passing,” Oshie said. “Play hockey.”

Oshie’s father, known even by his son as “Coach,” died in May 2021, near the end of the Capitals’ season. Oshie missed one game but raced back to New York to face the Rangers.

“In some weird way, I think he wouldn’t have wanted it to be his fault that I missed another game,” Oshie said. “Who knows? But I think I know him better than most, and that’s how I handled it.”

That he completed a hat trick with an empty-net goal that finished off the Rangers meant the tears would flow. It would be peak Ovechkin to return to the lineup with a similar performance. The bond was evident, and his teammates knew it because so many of them have lived it with their own hockey dads.

Mikhail “was his guy,” Wilson said.

They all have their guys.