Alex Ovechkin was the first player to emerge from the Washington Capitals’ dressing room before practice Wednesday morning. He skated alone to the middle of the ice, dropped to his knees and stretched in silence as lights hummed above the rink.
Ovechkin tightened a hoodie around his ears. His eyes were glassy, his cheeks red. He choked up as a reporter asked him about his father’s impact. “He give me everything — all his health, all his time,” he said. “He travel with me all over the world and been at every practice when he have a chance.”
Most of the Capitals did not take part in Wednesday’s optional skate, choosing to rest after Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to Detroit extended the team’s losing streak to five games. Ovechkin missed the last four of those losses. It is unclear whether he will be ready to return to the lineup for Thursday’s home game against Anaheim, but his presence Wednesday lifted the mood of players who have been spiraling.
He also needed them. Ovechkin smiled and nodded at a few teammates as they joined him in the quiet rink. He laughed along with an assistant coach and waved to a few reporters through the glass. He looked genuinely happy to be back at work.
“It’s a hard situation for my family, but right now I’m happy I’m back and see all the guys’ smiles,” he said. “It’s kind of like a different atmosphere than it was the last couple of days.”
The Capitals, who have tumbled out of the playoff picture and have been outscored 20-8 over their five-game skid, have struggled to produce offense and capitalize on power-play opportunities without their captain, who leads the team with 32 goals. No other Capitals player is on pace to score more than 20.
“It was felt when he wasn’t here. He’s a big part of the team. He’s our leading point-getter. He’s our leading goal scorer. He’s the captain of the team,” Coach Peter Laviolette said. “It’s his love for the game that shines through in the locker room, and it’s a big body and a big presence coming back in our lineup. So we’re certainly happy to have him back.”
The organization honored Mikhail Ovechkin with a moment of silence before last Thursday’s home loss to the Florida Panthers. Ovechkin remained in touch with his teammates during his absence — he spoke to the team the day before he left the country and sent a supportive text message to the group ahead of its 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday in an outdoor game in Raleigh, N.C.
Washington suffered more attrition Tuesday when forward Anthony Mantha left the game against Detroit with an upper-body injury. But the return of Ovechkin will boost a lineup that recently has gotten back some key players ahead of the final stretch of the season. Forward Tom Wilson, who missed eight games with a lower-body injury, has returned, as has center Nic Dowd, who had been sidelined for 12 games with a lower-body injury.
Ovechkin skated once in Russia last week, he said, but he didn’t take part in drills until he returned Wednesday. It felt like training camp for the 37-year-old, and by the end of the session he took a knee at center ice. He was winded. He expects an adjustment period as he climbs back into playing shape.
“I just want to come back right away, put my mind in a different position,” he said. “We’re struggling right now, so I just want to try to do my best to bring energy, bring something to the team.”
As he met with reporters Wednesday, Ovechkin thanked the organization and its fans for their support for his family. He expects his mother and brother to travel to the United States to stay with him soon. He expressed gratitude that he was able to say goodbye before his father died. “It’s a good thing right now we have video, because lots of my friends who lost their fathers, they don’t have cellphones back then,” he said.
Ovechkin recalled fond memories of his father. He remembered all of the sacrifices made for his career. He remembered celebrating the Stanley Cup win together in Moscow in 2018 — “The best moment of my life with him,” Ovechkin said — and remembered Mikhail Ovechkin’s sense of humor. Those memories carried him as he returned to hockey this week.
“The people [who] know him, they’re going to miss his smile,” he said. “They’re going to miss his energy.”