Alex Ovechkin’s offseason was quiet. He wasn’t photographed partying with Russian club dancers on a yacht in Turkey, and there were no images of him that sparked a debate about his fitness level. This summer was different. This summer, Ovechkin served as the most enthusiastic supporter — and occasional equipment bag lackey — for his now fiancee, professional tennis player Maria Kirilenko.
The routine took a little getting used to, Ovechkin admitted recently, what with going to sleep early only to rise early the next day for a practice. It wasn’t how he usually spent his time away from hockey, but it offered him a different perspective, because for the first time he was supporting a professional athlete rather than competing himself.
The calmer lifestyle, he realized, wasn’t so bad.
“One hundred percent, I’m settled down. It’s no question,” Ovechkin said. “Now I just go home [after practices] watch the movies, check out the Internet, play the video games and that’s it. It’s slower. My friends come here, pick me up, we go to dinner, and at 10 p.m., I’m home. It’s not like I used to be, when crazy stuff happened.”
Over the past week as he prepared for his eighth NHL season, which begins Saturday when the Washington Capitals visit Tampa Bay, Ovechkin has shown a different side of himself and there are subtle signs that at 27 years old he is evolving from “Young Gun” to grown-up.
Sure, he still drives an electric blue Mercedes SL65 AMG that announces his arrival anywhere with a throaty rumble, wears T-shirts that read “Am I really the prettiest one here, again?” in Russian, cracks jokes at the expense of local reporters and propels himself around the ice with unparalleled, thunderous force.
But Ovechkin has also opened up to change in his game, seeking consistent input from new Coach Adam Oates and lingering a little longer in meetings with team officials.
“There seems to be a new maturity there,” General Manager George McPhee said. “Whether that comes from just aging or the relationship he has with his fiancee we don’t know. But he seems like a different guy in a good way. . . . He’s in no rush to go anywhere anymore.”
No matter the source of Ovechkin’s adjusted approach, it may be an important change for the Capitals as a whole.
“He’s obviously an outstanding player and any improvements he can make in his life or his game are certainly welcome for us,” McPhee added, “Because we’ll only go as far as he can take us.”
Those close to Ovechkin believe his relationship with Kirilenko, who is ranked 15th in the world by the Women’s Tennis Association, has been a positive influence on the ebullient superstar. The two met at the 2011 U.S. Open, and there was an instant connection, Ovechkin said.
She visited him in Washington multiple times last season, and once the Capitals were eliminated from the playoffs, Ovechkin traveled with Kirilenko and her father, who is also her coach, to Wimbledon and the London Olympics. He brought his personal trainer along as well, so he could prepare for the new NHL season.
When the lockout prevented him from playing in North America, Ovechkin returned to his hometown team, Dynamo Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League, where he played 31 games and recorded 40 points. In addition to affording him more time with his family and Kirilenko, the lockout allowed Ovechkin to reconnect with a fan base that he hadn’t played in front of consistently since he was 19 years old.
There, his image adorns the side of buildings, and he proudly serves as a spokesman for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. While he played for Dynamo, hundreds of spectators would line up for his autograph at any appearance and children mobbed the team bus, just to catch a glimpse of their hero.
“To play with him in Russia, it’s different,” said Nicklas Backstrom, who joined Dynamo Moscow during the lockout at Ovechkin’s urging. “He’s a bigger character over there. Everybody knows who he is, wants to see him, watch him play.”
On Dec 31, as he and Kirilenko celebrated the new year with their families, Ovechkin proposed. She had picked out a ring and already accepted, but Kirilenko wanted to surprise their parents with the news when they were all together for the holiday.
“It moved fast and it was unbelievable. It still is unbelievable,” Ovechkin said. “I feel comfortable with her. Talking to her every day, she helps me. Sometimes I go home and if I was in a bad mood, when I see her I just forget about what happens here and move on.”
Ovechkin ranked fifth in the NHL in goals last season with 38, but for the second straight year, he finished with career lows in points (65) and assists (27). After Bruce Boudreau was fired as coach in November 2011, Dale Hunter instituted an ultra-conservative game plan, cutting Ovechkin’s minutes and clipping his offensive wings.
It was a humbling experience for the two-time Hart Trophy winner to sit on the bench, especially during the playoffs.
“It was very hard for me personally,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes you have to keep it in your inside, if you’re not happy, to be good teammate.”
Ovechkin doesn’t hide his enthusiasm for playing an aggressive style under Oates, calling the first-year coach’s strategy “perfect for us.” During training camp, the two have been regularly seen discussing plays on the ice.
Oates wants to simultaneously loosen the reins on Ovechkin offensively while entrusting him with more defensive responsibility. He encouraged a shift to right wing, which could diversify Ovechkin’s game, and the coach also might use him on the penalty kill.
Oates wants to make a strong connection with the face of the franchise to help him improve as a player.
“I love his enthusiasm, and obviously he’s a very dynamic player. I’m going to talk to him a lot,” Oates said. “The first goal for me is to get him to trust me. I want him to know that I’ve got his back and I do. I believe I’m that type of guy and I’m going to do everything I can to make him be successful.”
Regardless of the year, supporting cast or coach, the Capitals’ fortunes have been tied directly to Ovechkin’s ability to make a difference. With a new outlook and style off the ice, Ovechkin seems ready for the challenge of leading another attempt at a prolonged Stanley Cup playoff run.
“I feel like he’s happy,” Backstrom said. “He feels good about himself and everybody knows what he’s capable of doing when he feels good about himself. I think he will be as good as he wants to be.”
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