By this point, Ovechkin had turned to his teammates, pumped his fists and screamed before lifting the Stanley Cup for a first time, finally a champion along with one of the greatest players of all time. He had barely let that hulking silver chalice out of his sight, graciously passing it along to Capitals owner Ted Leonsis while keeping his hand near – just in case it got too heavy. He bumped his right fist to the beat of fans chanting his name and then he exhaled while rolling his eyes, perhaps in disbelief that his moment was here at last.
He hugged teammate Andre Burakovsky’s father, then Nicklas Backstrom’s family and then Dmitry Orlov’s wife, Varvara, who finally told him his own loved ones were on their way. At the sight of his crying, pregnant wife Nastya, Ovechkin rushed over to kiss her and then hug his in-laws. An NHL official asked Ovechkin if he was ready to leave the ice and hold a news conference as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, the postseason’s most valuable player.
But Ovechkin was still looking for his brother in the mayhem on the ice. He wanted to take a picture.
“I think this moment, we waiting a long, long time,” Ovechkin said.
'One day we're going to win it'
Standing in the backyard of her Moscow country home in February, Tatiana Ovechkina pointed out the lake where her son swims in the summer, where he grills steaks for his guests, where he plays basketball and tennis. The courts are lined with banners with his name and face on them. She was a basketball player, an Olympic gold medalist, and when her youngest son was born, she sensed he was destined for the same sporting greatness.
“From birth, it was obvious,” Ovechkina said. “In a child, it’s clear immediately. He was very active and walking and curious.”
Leonsis had that same good feeling about Alexander Mikhailovich Ovechkin, when the Capitals drafted him first overall on June 26, 2004. And then he was really sold when he saw him eat three cantaloupes at a fan event that night.
“I honestly could feel his heart pumping, which is what everyone has been saying about him: His engine runs at higher RPMs,” Leonsis said then.
Fittingly, for all of Ovechkin’s feats and flaws over the past 14 years, he has been the Capitals’ heartbeat. He revitalized a fan base with his undeniable scoring ability and exuberant goal celebrations. His wide gap-toothed smile became as signature as his power-play one-timer from the left faceoff circle. His dejected expression after defeat became a springtime tradition.
In the afterglow of victory, Ovechkin sat between the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy and he wanted to tell a story. As a 20-year-old rookie, he visited Leonsis’s home and swam in the pool with his kids. Speaking English was still a struggle, and the native Russian was both wowed and overwhelmed by his new North American surroundings. Mostly, he was a kid living away from home for a first time, not yet fully grasping his place in the franchise and in Washington. Leonsis said something that afternoon that stayed with Ovechkin 12 years later.
“He told me, like, one day we’re going to win it,” Ovechkin said. “It was the first year. I don’t even know what the team is.”
In 2008, he signed a 13-year deal worth roughly $9.5 million annually, one of the most lucrative NHL contracts with an eye-popping term. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern told Leonsis he was a fool for signing Ovechkin to that length a deal, that the superstar would become unmotivated. Leonsis disagreed, and his one regret is that the deal wasn’t 15 years long.
“Not a lot of people can deliver on their promises,” Leonsis said. “From the first moment he got drafted, diving into the crowd, eating his cantaloupes, getting people drinks, he’s always been an extrovert and connected so well with the team.”
Not long after the Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy for recording the NHL’s best regular season record but lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 2010 playoffs, Leonsis made a promise: “Alex and the Caps are gonna win Stanley Cups. We’re either gonna win it this year or next year or the year after. We’re gonna get better, too.”
'It's a young man's league'
After nine postseason trips that ended short of the conference finals, Leonsis’s prognostication seemed less of a sure thing. Ovechkin went from the fresh-faced and fun-loving star to the weary captain. Once the hope of the franchise, Ovechkin looked exhausted from the repeated disappointments, often the one blamed most for them.
At 32 years old, his hair was more gray than black, and after he scored 33 goals during the 2016-17 season — a great year for most players, but one of his worst — Ovechkin’s career seemed to be on the decline going into this campaign.
His personal life also had been the subject of some scrutiny. He was photographed wearing sunglasses upside down while partying with Russian club dancers on a yacht in Turkey during the 2010 offseason, and he had to field questions about his fitness level a year later because of a photograph that wasn’t kind to his midsection. The party-boy image was more fodder for his critics, especially in contrast to on-ice rival and Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who had won a first Stanley Cup by that point and wanted out of the spotlight when he wasn’t playing.
Ovechkin met Russian tennis pro Maria Kirilenko at the 2011 U.S. Open, and the couple was engaged by December of the following year. She announced the engagement was broken off in July 2014 before marrying someone else the following January. Two months later, Ovechkin went public with his relationship to Nastya Shubskaya, a Russian model and socialite. They were engaged in September 2016 and married last summer in an extravagant ceremony.
During that still-giddy period between the wedding and the honeymoon, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz asked to meet Ovechkin in Moscow, where Trotz was visiting his son.
Ovechkin picked up Trotz from his hotel near Red Square and then gave him a tour, driving him around Moscow and then pointing out the apartment where he grew up. The two men then went to a restaurant where everyone knew Ovechkin. They were seated in a private room, where the coach leveled with his player: The 2017-18 Capitals wouldn’t be as experienced or as talented, so they couldn’t afford another lackluster season from Ovechkin like the last one.
“The game’s changing, and a lot of people think your game is not going to translate and you can’t do anything anymore because you’re getting older,” Trotz recalled telling Ovechkin that day. “The game’s getting quicker; it’s a young man’s league, and you’re getting older. Just as a coach and just as a friend, knowing this game, how you’re going to have continued success is you’re going to have to become more of an athlete.”
Trotz then told Ovechkin to focus on being the best consistently, “rather than, ‘Oh, we have a good team, and I’ll be good here tonight because we haven’t lost two in a row,’” he said.
Ovechkin returned to Washington more than two weeks before training camp, skating in the mornings and running around the Washington-Lee High School track in the late afternoons. He was just four pounds lighter, but the Capitals saw a change in his body composition. Trotz saw something of an attitude change, too.
Ovechkin opened the season with hat tricks in the first two games. He finished with 49 goals, with 32 at even strength, his most since 2010.
“What does he do? He comes into the start of the season, gets seven goals in two games,” Trotz said. “There are guys who can’t get seven in a year; he got seven in two games. He sort of set that bar personally because a lot of things were said about him that I think he is very prideful and just said, ‘You know what, I’m going to prove you all wrong.’ And he did.”
As Ovechkin assembled his family on the ice in Las Vegas Thursday night, he retrieved the Stanley Cup and then presented it to his wife for a first time, propping it up so as her palms rubbed it. The Ovechkins had wanted to keep the news of the pregnancy quiet until after the playoffs so it wouldn’t be a distraction, but as Ovechkin rubbed his hand on his wife’s pregnant belly, a nearby fan cheered, “There’s a baby!” Applause followed, and Nastya happily took video on her phone of the crowd of red jerseys celebrating her growing family.
Finally ready to leave the T-Mobile Arena ice, Ovechkin kicked off his skates and tossed on teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov’s slippers before sitting down at a table on a raised stage. The Stanley Cup was to his right.
“We waited so long. We’re waiting 13 years to get the Cup,” Ovechkin said, turning his head to look at the trophy with his reflection staring back at him in the silver. “This is something. Something special. It’s unbelievable.”
Ovechkin was never the primary reason for the Capitals’ history of playoff disappointments — he was a near-point-per-game producer even before this postseason, when he scored 15 goals and 12 assists in 24 games — but perhaps the organization wouldn’t have claimed the first championship in its 44-year history had Ovechkin not played the most well-rounded hockey of his career. Among the team’s forwards, he blocked the fifth-most shots, and though the importance of that is often overstated, Ovechkin’s commitment sent a message. His enthusiasm when someone other than him scored was infectious.
“He’s played a better team game the whole year,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “He’s been more of a leader the whole year. You see him in the playoffs this year, and he’s our best player.”
The Capitals’ victory party raged on, from a Las Vegas club Thursday to an Arlington bar to Nationals Park to Georgetown, where Ovechkin jumped into a fountain shirtless and made snow-angels in the water. He conducted boozy singings of “We Are The Champions.” And then he took the Stanley Cup home Saturday night for a small family gathering.
He placed it on his patio table, beside the Conn Smythe trophy, awarded to the playoffs MVP, which was adorned with a speaker playing a Russian song about love. His wife was sitting to his right, his father-in-law to his left and his mother directly across from him. Ovechkin had everything he needed, and the night was capped with a photo of Ovechkin in bed with the Stanley Cup, the trophy on his chest and his wife beside him.
“I think that this is one of the best moments of my life for sure,” Ovechkin said earlier that day. “It’s going to be for my life.”
Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.