In the middle of August, as his offseason was winding down, Alex Ovechkin received a phone call. Told he needed to pick up a first-time visitor to Russia, he promptly drove to Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow and came upon a one-time Ontario hayseed, whose only concept of that part of eastern Europe was “Rocky IV.”
“Ovi!” Adam Oates called.
“What’s up, Coach?”
Over the next 24 hours or so, the three-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner and coach of the Washington Capitals spent time on the ice, in front of Oates’ computer watching an Ovechkin highlight video of last season and finally at a chic Moscow restaurant watching a World Cup qualifier with Ovi’s boys.
“He came to me,” Ovechkin said on the first day of training camp, sounding genuinely moved that Oates crossed two continents to visit him at home. “He work out with me. He show me some things. He showed me highlights and talk to me.”
Asked what Oates communicated that day, Ovechkin replied, “He told me I had good season, but I could be better.”
That’s about right, Oates confirmed.
“I showed him highlights of the first time he made the switch,” to the right side of the ice, Oates said. “I showed him some of the places he had success on the ice he might not have known about. Then we worked on some power-play stuff with a good friend of his that’s a quality goalie.
“We had a good time but then he got recalled by Putin and had to leave.”
Wait. Vladimir Putin?
“Yeah,” Oates said. “He had to go to a ceremony in Sochi to promote the Olympics, so we were a little unlucky with that. But it was a good trip. I’m glad I went.”
If you’re going to be stood up in Moscow, it might as well be for a sitting Russian president, no?
There is no empirical evidence from the Elias Sports Bureau or anywhere else that says establishing a deep bond with one of your players leads to a franchise hoisting any kind of trophy.
While coaching the Wizards, Eddie Jordan once went to break bread with Brendan Haywood at Haywood’s North Carolina home during the summer. Flip Saunders met up with Gilbert Arenas in Chicago, trying to forge a personal bond with his star player. Shaquille O’Neal, upon learning that Phil Jackson would become his coach in 1999, visited Jackson’s family ranch in Montana that summer.
But Oates giving up a bit of his summer to fly six hours to Munich for a lengthy layover before another three-hour flight to Moscow — all told a five-day trip that included a visit with Capitals’ star-in-waiting Evgeny Kuznetsov — is the kind of proactive move that engenders real trust among great players, most of whom just want two things from their direct supervisors: brutal honesty and occasional affirmation that they really are special.
“For me I just wanted to see what his world was like and also to let him know that he needs to keep adding to his game,” Oates said. “A lot of times with a guy like that you plant a seed and they’ll figure it out on their own.”
After a day on the ice and in front of the computer, both men showered up for a night at Maradona Riverside Restaurant in Moscow, where they watched the Russian national soccer team upset by Northern Ireland.
“He says to me, ‘Do you mind if we go watch this game?’” Oates said. “I’m thinking this is going to be some little sports bar. It turns out to be some high-end place with huge screens.
“Then some of his buddies show up, and I end up getting the whole Alex experience: all these guys with their Hookah pipes. I should have taken a picture with a Hookah pipe in my mouth, I’m so dumb.”
Borscht, pasta, red meat and gullets of some kind of beverage — “Ovi got the check; I think I was too drunk to sign it,” Oates joked.
The next day he visited with Ovechkin’s father and then played tourist, chauffeured to Red Square by another one of Ovechkin’s friends.
“I’m glad I did it,” Oates said. “It killed two birds with one stone, and it was really good to catch up with him even for a short time.”
He added that he wasn’t just giving Ovechkin the usual spiel about improving.
“He can be much, much better,” the coach said. “I look at him as still a player in transition. He’s still young; he’s still getting stronger. He knows the game. I think he’s at a place that if we can find more ways for him to score, I’d love to also see him create more chances for his teammates. It’s not necessarily a numbers thing; it’s more an evolvement of the game.”
Ovechkin agreed he can get better in this his ninth NHL season.
“I feel still young,” he says when asked if he is beginning to feel like one of the old guys on the roster. “I’m still only 27. I’m going to be 28 in five days. I feel good. I’m very excited.”
When asked what Oates’ visit to Moscow meant to him, he added, “It means a lot. He said he was going to do it after the season and he came. We talk about culture, the differences in countries, everything. I think it’s good for both of us.”