“When I drive to the games, it was an unbelievable feeling, you know?” Ovechkin said. “My dream come true.”
Thirteen years after that first Ovechkin season, he’s poised to play his 1,000th game with the Capitals on Sunday night in Pittsburgh, the first player in franchise history to reach that milestone. He has evolved from the brazen rookie to the team’s captain and longest-tenured player. While the 2005-06 campaign was the dazzling start of one of the most dominant careers in NHL history, this season has seen Ovechkin continue to cement his place in the sport’s pantheon, scoring his 600th career goal while leading the NHL with 45 this year.
He still smiles every time he’s asked to recall his rookie season. The team’s inside joke was that its record was so poor, the Capitals were eliminated in October. But that collection of largely journeymen NHLers raised and influenced a young Ovechkin who needed help navigating sudden stardom.
“Back then, we don’t have lots of success as a team, but we have one of the best locker rooms I’ve ever been in,” Ovechkin said.
“That group of guys was special almost because the whole group was experiencing it through Alex’s eyes,” said Jeff Halpern, the captain that season.
'Guy is going to get us killed'
Halpern met Ovechkin at the world championships just before the Capitals drafted him first overall in 2004. By then, it was obvious Washington would pick him with the top selection, so Halpern briefly introduced himself.
“I see a kid that I didn’t have a huge connection with right away,” Halpern admitted.
Then when Ovechkin arrived in Washington a few weeks before training camp, he wore ripped cutoff jean shorts and a too-tight T-shirt to an informal skate. “He looked like a mess,” Halpern said, describing it as like the scene from the movie “Slap Shot” in which teammates encountered the outrageous Hanson brothers for the first time.
“We played the Flyers at some point in preseason, and he scored a goal and skated by their bench and winked at their bench,” Halpern said. “I was like, ‘Oh, this guy is going to get us killed.’ ”
Nine-hundred ninety-eight games later, Ovechkin’s NHL debut stands as the true eye-opener for Capitals players from that season. For all of the hype surrounding him, he had a good-but-not-great training camp. Then on his very first NHL shift, he knocked Columbus’s Radoslav Suchy into the glass, shattering it. By the end of the game, he had scored his first two goals. By the end of the season, he would have 52 with 54 assists.
“Our team was not very good, but we made the most of it, and the big reason for that was Ovi,” said Matt Bradley, a forward on that team. “I always joked that I had a front-row seat to watch what he did. I mean, he’s worth the price of admission on his own, so for me to sit there on the bench and watch him do it was special.”
Said Brian Willsie: “We knew he could score, knew he could shoot and had seen that, but just the whole physical game and just the drive every single shift is what we saw that first game, and we hadn’t seen that before. We kind of had this stereotypical Russian player who was superskilled but didn’t play that physical side. And he did it, and that’s what really set him apart and opened all of our eyes.”
Ovechkin requested that he have a North American roommate on the road that season to help him adapt to the culture and learn the language, so he was paired with Willsie. “He handle me pretty well,” Ovechkin said with a chuckle. Coach Glen Hanlon charged Willsie with being Ovechkin’s chaperon and making sure he got to the arena on time after their routine trip to Starbucks. Willsie was endeared by Ovechkin’s childlike love for playing, a quality he still has at 32, but he also wanted to teach Ovechkin how to be professional, whether it was getting to bed by a certain time or making sure they had a healthy meal for dinner.
“I got told by Glen Hanlon, ‘Just don’t lose him,’ ” Willsie said. “He was like a puppy in those towns — you just don’t want to lose him. . . .
“Every city we went to was a brand-new experience for him, the first games in every NHL arena. He would grill me with questions in the morning on the way to rink. What’s the crowd like? What’s the arena like? What’s the city like? He was just so excited and curious to play in all of those different cities.”
Ovechkin repeatedly wore tight red jeans to practice, “and finally someone said, ‘We need to stop with the tight red jeans and take him shopping,’ ” Willsie said with a laugh. On the team’s first trip to New York, Ovechkin asked Willsie to direct him to the fashion strip and go shopping with him. Ovechkin kept trying to buy Willsie some new clothes, but Willsie insisted on just waiting for him by the door.
“It was his first time playing in Toronto, and our regular routine was to go morning skate, come back for lunch and then have a nap and then we’d go back to the game,” Willsie said. “This time, we finished our meal and we’re getting ready for our nap, and it was around Christmastime in Toronto and he was so excited that we were finally playing Toronto. So, he says, ‘I’m going to walk around.’ I said, ‘Are you sure?’ He’s like, ‘Yep, I can’t sleep.’ He was gone the whole afternoon. I don’t know where he went.”
More than anyone, Willsie saw the toll Ovechkin’s hulking 6-foot-2, 215-pound body took that first season. “He was pretty beat up that first year,” Willsie said. Ovechkin still played all but one game while recording 172 hits, 14th most in the league. Ovechkin’s first hat trick came against Anaheim, a game that’s remembered as much for his thundering hit on defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski.
“Ovi, he wears those gold chains, and you could hear the chains like a cowbell kind of coming at you,” Halpern said.
“The setup that we had in Nashville is we had a big, long hallway, so you could see the visitors down the hall, and when Alex was cutting a stick or something, you realized how huge he is,” said Capitals Coach Barry Trotz, then with the Predators. “Big, giant legs. I mean, he’s a big man. And I didn’t have a real big team, and guys were like, ‘Did you see this?’ You could hear the conversation. I never saw him off the ice before, and the guys are saying how big he was and then you knew how physical he was. So, we had a couple of nervous cats.”
Halpern didn’t think the hard-hitting style would be sustainable, comparing it to the short career of an NFL running back. “When you run through enough brick walls, eventually the wall is going to start to hit back,” Halpern said. But of players from Ovechkin’s 2004 draft class, he’s the first to reach 1,000 games, never missing more than 10 in a season. He’s been out of the lineup for just 29 games during his career, and 12 of those scratches weren’t even injury-
“Thanks, God,” Ovechkin said while knocking on his wooden locker room stall.
“There isn’t a guy who’s played a harder 1,000 games than him,” Bradley said.
Ovechkin has become more selective with his physicality in the interest of conserving energy, something Trotz asked of him when the two met in Moscow last summer. He has toned down other parts of his game, including the enthusiastic celebrations that initially caught his teammates and the rest of the NHL off guard. The sport prides itself on its players’ humility, and though teammates would occasionally tease Ovechkin that first year — “He showed up with blue neon lights underneath his car one day, and we all thought that was pretty funny,” Bradley said — they never wanted to destroy his zeal.
It made them look forward to what he might do the next game and the one after that. One thousand games into his career, that wonder and that anticipation remain.
“How do you control a guy like that? How do you tell a guy not to be excited about playing hockey?” Halpern said.
“I was lucky to be drafted here,” Ovechkin said. “Right away, I feel this is my second home. The organization, the fans, the community has been great for me. It’s nice to play for one team that long time and be able to stay healthy and be able to do all these things together.”