Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby were among a number of Caps players who participated in an informal workout on Tuesday morning. (James Sherrill for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)

Ovechkin, Capitals return, await further instruction once labor deal is ratified

Alex Ovechkin was one of the first five players on the ice Tuesday morning at the Washington Capitals’ training facility. He zipped around the rink, showing occasional flashes of speed and explosiveness as he joked with teammates. Afterward, he poked fun at reporters while sporting a T-shirt with the message, “Am I really the prettiest one here, again?” written in Russian.

The appearance was his first in Washington since September, but it was as though he never left. As recently as a week ago, however, Ovechkin wondered if the NHL labor dispute would ever reach a resolution.

“To be honest with you, no. I thought that I’m gonna stay the end of the season and play in Russia,” Ovechkin said. “You can ask any guy in Russia what they think and they’re gonna say the same thing. It was hard time for us, for some of us, but it’s over. I don’t know why we do it.”

Ovechkin, 27, spent the 113 day of the lockout playing for his hometown team, Dynamo Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League. Multiple times during the stoppage, he was one of several Russian players to suggest that he might not return to North America if the new collective bargaining agreement drastically reduced his contract.

The tentative deal that the NHL and players’ union struck Sunday morning does not include a rollback of existing player contracts, but escalating escrow could become an issue under the new agreement.

Upon learning that the two sides had reached an agreement in principle, Ovechkin quickly returned to Washington.

“Of course, first of all, I want to find out what the deal is because if this lockout is done, it’s done,” Ovechkin said when asked if he had any hesitation about returning. “What’s gonna be situation with my contract and the contract for the future for the players?

“But it’s over, so I’m happy to [be] back,” Ovechkin continued. “It was hard time, but I think everybody miss hockey so badly right now. It’s nice to be back.”

It was an eventful four-month hiatus from the NHL for Ovechkin. In addition to recording 19 goals and 21 assists in 31 games for Dynamo Moscow, he proposed to his girlfriend, Russian tennis star Maria Kirilenko, on New Year’s Eve — and she accepted.

“I feel normal. She’s not with me right now; she’s in Australia, but it’s a good feeling, you know?” Ovechkin said. “It’s not that feeling anymore when you can do whatever you want. You have a girl with a tennis racquet and she can hit you. It’s funny. It’s great feelings for me right now.”

Ovechkin called his time with Dynamo Moscow a “very good experience,” adding that he feels he’s in good shape and that the game experience will help him get off to a strong start in the shortened NHL season.

After Ovechkin spoke to local reporters, Russian newspaper Sovetsky Sport published a statement from Dynamo Moscow’s general manager stating that the star left wing was nursing a minor injury when he left Russia. Ovechkin did not appear limited while on the ice Tuesday, though.

Coach Adam Oates is not yet permitted to hold discussions in a team environment with the players who are back in Washington, but he was pleased to see that Ovechkin was one of the early out-of-town arrivals.

“It was good. Really good. Excited to see him,” Oates said. “Glad he’s in one piece. Playing over there it’s different hockey, but glad he’s back and can’t wait for everybody to come in.”

General Manager George McPhee was also glad to see the franchise pillar back on the ice two days after the tentative agreement was reached. McPhee never doubted that Ovechkin, the captain and player he built the Capitals’ roster around, would return once the lockout ended.

“He was coming back and it’s my understanding that within 10 hours of the handshake deal, he was packed up, moved out and on a plane,” McPhee said. “He wants to play here and it’s the best league in the world. If you’re a competitive guy it’s the place you want to be.”