And now, as the handoff draws near, the emotions begin to get complicated. It isn’t every day, or every year, that Washington packs up its most valuable commodity, the one thing its people can’t do without, and gives it to the Russians for safekeeping. But so it will be in a week or so, when Alex Ovechkin slips off the red, white and blue jersey of the Washington Capitals, crosses an ocean, and pulls on the red, blue and gold of Team Russia.
Complicated feelings are inevitable, of course, when the NHL must halt its season for nearly three weeks and watch its best — and most expensive — players take the ice at least nine time zones away to play for their motherlands. But no one is as central to the Sochi Winter Games as Ovechkin, the very face of these Olympics, and thus no one is quite so conflicted as the Capitals.
They have seen their superstar, the top goal-scorer in the NHL this season by a wide margin, miss a mid-January practice to do the “Today” show. They have seen him spend an off-day shadowed by an NBC camera crew. They note the pack of reporters at his locker each day, or the interviewer waiting at the hotel when the team bus arrives. They hear him repeatedly quizzed about security concerns in Sochi, as if he receives daily intelligence briefings from President Vladimir Putin.
The closer it gets to Feb. 12, the opening of the Olympic men’s hockey tournament, the more the perception grows that Ovechkin serves one master in the daytime, and another at 7 p.m., when the puck drops.
“I hope his mind is still with us here, with the Capitals,” said veteran winger Troy Brouwer. “It’s a big honor to play in the Olympics when it’s in your home country, and I know there is probably a lot of pressure on the whole Russian team to do well. . . . [But] he’s employed by the Washington Capitals and his focus needs to be here. He’s been here, he’s been a good teammate, he’s been working hard, and that’s what’s expected of him.”
The complicated feelings are nearly as acute on the other side of the equation. When Ovechkin missed two games with a groin injury, it nearly sparked an international incident, with Russian teammates texting him and national team officials calling him frantically to check on his condition, before ultimately standing down when Ovechkin promised them it was no big deal.
“No offense, but I don’t care,” Capitals Coach Adam Oates said when asked how he thinks Ovechkin’s injury played in Russia. “His job is to play for us right now — not to get healthy for the Olympics, but to get healthy for us. . . . I’m sure they’re worried he’s hurt. But he played again, so I’m sure they’re fine.”
The only person who shows no signs of internal conflict, in fact, is Ovechkin himself. The key is simplicity. His mission is to put the puck in the net, to win games, to conquer — whether he is a Capitals right wing or Team Russia’s left wing. He regards his twin goals of a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold with equal weight. He only knows how to play at one speed.
“It’s tough schedule right now,” he said about the Capitals’ final stretch before the Olympic break. “If you going to [try to save] for future, it’s not going to work, so I try to give my best every day.”
At 28, having spent nearly half his life as a celebrity, Ovechkin knows how much he can handle. He shrugs when asked about his role as the unofficial spokesman of the Sochi Games, having perfected that staple of an athlete’s quote-cupboard: “It is what it is.”
“Sometimes questions all the same,” he said. “You have to answer it. You don’t want to be that person who says, ‘You know what? Go to Internet and Google it.’ ”
He has been in Washington so long now — almost a decade — and has grown so comfortable with the English language and the American culture that it is difficult sometimes to remember that Ovechkin is only visiting, that home will always be Russia. He was passionate enough about representing his homeland that he was prepared to defy the NHL, and risk his $124 million contract, to play in these Olympics even if the league had decided to withhold support.
The Sochi Games, then, will give Capitals fans a rare glimpse into their superstar in his natural habitat — on his home soil, playing alongside teammates he has known since childhood, celebrated not merely as a transcendent player in what remains the fourth major team sport in the United States, but as a national icon and pop-culture mainstay whose four-point performance in the Capitals’ win Tuesday at Buffalo, half a world away, was enough to put him on the front page of the daily Sport-Express newspaper in Russia.
Ovechkin is sports royalty in Russia. His mother, Tatiana, was the point guard on the gold-medal-winning Soviet teams in the 1976 Montreal and 1980 Moscow Games, and his fiancee, tennis player Maria Kirilenko, was the bronze medalist in the 2012 London Games. Partly because of that, Ovechkin said he doesn’t have to worry about being overrun with family obligations while in Sochi, despite having a large contingent on hand.
“My fiancee, my mother — they are athletes. They understand,” he said. “And my friends, they know why I’m there. I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be like regular tournament, where you can meet up with them anytime, like at restaurant, chill out little bit. It’s going to be Olympics. You have to deal more with media. You have to deal with Russian government, stuff they ask you to do. Of course, it’s going to be hard, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to have a schedule. You have to say yes or no.”
It is perhaps telling that Ovechkin, despite his massive celebrity in Russia, has chosen to reside in the Athletes’ Village with his teammates, rather than opt for the seclusion provided by a private house on the outside. At the London Games in 2012, when Kirilenko and Ovechkin had been dating less than a year, she made the opposite choice: opting for a private house, in part so Ovechkin could stay with her.
“He said he needs to be with his team,” said Kirilenko, who, as a non-participant in Sochi, won’t be able to stay with Ovechkin. “This is a different situation. For me, it was very helpful [to stay in a house] because I felt I needed someone to be with me. [Ovechkin] needs to concentrate more. I’m fine with it.”
Team Russia’s jerseys, both the regal red and the more modern white, feature four gold stars on each shoulder — representing the country’s eight gold medals in hockey. But in terms of recent history, as Ovechkin transitions from Washington to Sochi later this month, he will be leaving one star-crossed franchise — the Capitals haven’t made it past the second round of the playoffs since 1997-98 — for another.
From 1956 to 1988, the Soviet Union won seven of nine Olympic golds, then added an eighth in the 1992 Albertville Games, where it competed as the “Unified” team of former Soviet states. But since 1994, Russia has never taken Olympic gold, winning silver in Nagano in 1998 and bronze four years later in Salt Lake City, but failing to reach the medal stand since.
At the 2010 Vancouver Games, a heavily hyped Russian team went down in flames, getting eliminated in humiliating fashion by Canada, 7-3, in the quarterfinals. Four days later, Canada took the gold on Sidney Crosby’s dramatic overtime goal. Twenty-two years old at the time, Crosby, Ovechkin’s longtime rival for the title of best player in the world, already had an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup title.
Ovechkin still has neither, and the questions about how much pressure he would be facing in Sochi began shortly after the Olympic torch was extinguished in Vancouver, gaining frequency with each passing year, until by now, it is asked of him more or less daily.
“We just have to make people happy,” he said Tuesday before the game at Buffalo. “And if you want to make people happy, you have to win the games and medals. Of course, everybody knows we going to have some problems with that pressure. But that’s good pressure. It’s going to be fine.”
While the Capitals get to spend the next two weeks hoping their captain skates through the Olympics without injury or incident, Team Russia gets the far better end of the deal. It gets a player at both the height of his physical powers and in a fundamentally solid place in his life, seemingly having found the sweet spot, both on and off the ice, between youthfulness and maturity.
“He’s on the right approach, the right direction now,” said Kirilenko, whose influence in Ovechkin’s life is seen by many people close to him as overwhelmingly positive. “I’m sure I’m helping him a little bit with that, just as he is helping me. If you love each other, respect each other, the relationship is like that. I can take something from him. Hopefully he takes something from me.”
Ovechkin will head to Sochi having fully embraced, and thrived under, the switch from the left to the right wing that Oates first used at the start of the 2012-13 NHL season, regaining his goal-scoring touch and demonstrating a more well-rounded offensive game — using his linemates more, moving to different spots on the ice, scoring from more varied spots. The Russians, of course, will almost certainly move him back to the left side.
“That’s the challenge for all the players: to make that transition from teammate, star player, the NHL, NHL rules, the size of the rink, to then travel many time zones, join a whole group of players that you haven’t played with, try to jell and get chemistry, and perform on a world stage for two weeks, and then come back and reenter and restart the season,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said earlier this season. As for the NHL’s franchises, he said, “The whole league holds it breath that no one gets hurt in the Olympics.”
Of greater concern to the Capitals is how the outcome in Sochi — particularly a disappointing one — would affect Ovechkin. Many in the organization remember how he sleepwalked through the first few games following Team Russia’s Vancouver debacle. A similar failure in Sochi would presumably weigh upon him even more, given the heightened expectations.
“All I’ve said to him is [that] there’s going to be a lot of stress on him because it’s in his country — and that extra stress is still stress,” Oates said. “And the best way to handle it is to be as fresh mentally and physically as you can be. There are certain things he can’t control. He can’t control the coach, the lines, how much he’s going to play. All he can control is how he feels.”
That may be part of the reason the Capitals are so nervous about Ovechkin and Sochi: They are loaning to the Russians a fully operational, high-powered, goal-scoring machine in near-mint condition. They only hope that, a few weeks later, they get nothing less than the same in return.
Katie Carrera contributed to this report.