Now all eyes are on Russian Alex Ovechkin, the captain of the Washington Capitals who has led his team to its first Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1998 — which, coincidentally, the Red Wings won in a four-game sweep for their second straight title. With Washington holding a 2-1 series lead on the Vegas Golden Knights heading into Monday night’s Game 4 at Capital One Arena, will the 32-year-old be able to help his team win two more games and then bring the Stanley Cup to Moscow? With a solid fan base at home, Ovechkin, an enthusiast of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a source of enormous pride among Russian hockey fans.
“The nucleus of [the Capitals] is Russian, and the country is ecstatic,” said Sergei Fedorov, a Russian who starred for the 1997 and 1998 Red Wings and played parts of two seasons with the Capitals at the end of his NHL career. “We’re getting up at 3 in the morning to watch the games, going back to bed and then heading to work at 8 a.m.”
Fedorov, now the general manager of CSKA Moscow, his team from the late 1980s, wants to see Ovechkin and fellow Russian teammates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov bring the Stanley Cup to Moscow. “If Ovi does it, this will be an amazing story and will draw enormous attention to the game,” he said. “Fans like to see players close to the heart.”
Since the Stanley Cup’s Moscow debut that summer at Red Square, NHL teams have drafted more than 200 Russian players. Many Russian hockey fans devotedly watch the Stanley Cup playoffs each year, either on cable television or by paying a fee and streaming games on NHL.com. “[Ovechkin] is a hero of Russia,” retired Soviet player Yuri Novikov told Russian sports site Championat.
Recently, the state-run newspaper Sport Express triumphantly listed the “most ‘Russian’ finals of the Stanley Cup” from 1993 to the present day, with the 1998 finals at the top with seven Russians playing. The Red Wings had five — Fedorov, Larionov and Kozlov as forwards, plus Fetisov and Dmitri Mironov on defense — while the Capitals had forward Andrei Nikolishin and defenseman Sergei Gonchar.
“Even if Ovechkin was the only Russian playing for Washington, the intrigue would still be higher than when [former Vancouver Canucks star] Pavel Bure first played in 1994,” the paper wrote. “Ovechkin and Washington have no choice but to win.”
Russians are natural hockey players: Children begin young, playing after school on the ponds and lakes that freeze over during the long winters. The sport is endorsed from the very top. Putin regularly plays on his “Legends of Hockey” team in exhibition games, alongside former NHL stars such as Bure and Fetisov.
But sometimes Russians’ pride can become tinged with resentment at their star players who cross the ocean to play professionally for considerably more money and global fame.
“It could be interesting to see the Stanley Cup on Red Square again, but it’s not something we really care about. It’s not a priority,” said Boris Chalov, one of the founders of the fan club for Dynamo Moscow, Ovechkin’s former Russian league team. “For us, Sasha will always be number 32, his Dynamo number, and not number 8, his Capitals number,” Chalov said, using Ovechkin’s Russian nickname.
Ovechkin was part of the Russian team that was bent on winning gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which ended in huge disappointment as the Russians were eliminated, for the second consecutive time, in the quarterfinals. He promised to do better in South Korea last winter but couldn’t take part because the NHL didn’t take a midseason break to let its players compete.
Last month, Russian actor Stanislav Sadalsky launched what he called a “boycott” of Ovechkin for missing out on the action in PyeongChang, saying the Capitals superstar had let down Russia — even though the Olympic Athletes from Russia squad ended up winning gold.
Some Russian stars return home after their NHL contracts end, and they compete in the Kontinental Hockey League to become fresh sources of pride in a country where sport has been used — and manipulated, as the long-running Olympics doping saga showed — for patriotic benefit.
Former Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk was given a hero’s welcome when he came back to the motherland two years ago. In January of this year, he personally thanked Putin for developing Russian hockey at home, telling the leader, “You — to use a sport term — are the captain of our country, Russia.” Another returnee, former New Jersey Devils standout Ilya Kovalchuk, has donated money to a Russian cancer charity.
Ovechkin’s Capitals contract expires in three seasons, when he will be 35.
Natalya Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.
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