As 6:30 p.m. neared on Thursday, the room appeared to get more restless. Chairs had been neatly assembled in rows to face a podium at the front, but no one sat down. Instead, the invited crowd stood by the door as it waited for the honored guest, voices getting more hushed the later it got.
The chatter ceased when it became apparent he had arrived. Alex Ovechkin made his way through a large ballroom in the Russian Embassy, with chandeliers hanging from high ceilings and gold drapes decorating marbled walls. He then emerged in the doorway of the smaller room where he was expected, taking a seat with his family at the front before everyone else followed and filed into the seats behind him.
In dark jeans and a black polo, Ovechkin was at ease here. He had been invited to the embassy to receive an award for his dedication and contribution to the Olympic movement in Russia. It was a way for Ovechkin to be thanked for his devotion to his home country, one he’s seemingly never turned down.
It was fitting that this recognition came 10 years into his NHL career and with him three goals away from matching Sergei Fedorov’s record for goals scored by a Russian player in the NHL. That milestone will go down as one of many for Ovechkin in a storied career that isn’t close to its end, but this one will be special because it is tied to his love for Russia, the country he has represented even while playing in America’s capital.
“My first priority was to be Russian and to represent my country,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what stage, the NHL or world championships or just to give an interview. It’s my home. My family’s there and my friends. Of course, I’m playing here, but this is my second home.”
On Thursday, Ovechkin was introduced as the player who has agreed to represent Russia no matter the circumstance. Even last year, after the Washington Capitals lost to the New York Rangers in the second round of the playoffs, Ovechkin got on a plane to Prague less than 24 hours removed from the Game 7 overtime loss.
He could help Team Russia in the IIHF World Championships, so he did, even after completing an 82-game regular season, then 14 playoff games. It marked his 11th appearance at the annual event. He and Team Russia have won gold medals in 2008, 2012 and 2014.
“I love my country, and I love to be Russian,” Ovechkin said. “I’m proud to be Russian. Obviously, I have a good relationship with everybody in government and people in Russia, so it’s a huge honor for me.”
Ovechkin spoke briefly, thankful for the recognition. The embassy then presented his mother, Tatyana Ovechkina, with a bouquet of red roses and asked her to speak. In Russian, she said Ovechkin deserves the recognition and spoke about how much her son loves Russia, saying that he when he arrives there, he kisses the ground.
“You can’t forget who raised you and where you went to a good athletic training school,” Tatyana said in Russian. “He doesn’t forget about that.”
Ovechkin said he has fans in both Russia and the United States, but when he’s in Moscow, he’s surrounded by friends. In the United States, it’s just his family, fiancee and teammates. Ovechkin said “one day, maybe sooner or later it’s going to happen,” that he will play in Russia, but for now his focus is still on winning a Stanley Cup in Washington.
Meeting with Russian media after receiving the award, Ovechkin was treated like the spokesman for Russian players in the NHL. He was asked whether Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League is doing a better job of preparing players who ultimately desire to play in North America, about the play of Russian teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov, about how Russian players are treated here with the current Russian political climate.
Finally, Ovechkin was asked whether he would pass Fedorov’s record for NHL goals scored by a Russian player. After scoring five goals in his first five games, Ovechkin has cooled off; he hasn’t had a goal in his last four games. But he cracked a joke that he would probably manage three more goals.
That’s a safe bet; he has scored more than 50 goals in a season six times during his career. When Fedorov’s record is his, he said he will call his former Capitals teammate. Ovechkin has 480 goals in 769 NHL games, the most of any player since he entered the league in 2005, but with the 484th one, he will set the standard for Russian hockey players.
“It’s going to be huge,” Ovechkin said. “I played with him growing up, when I was a teenager. He teach me a lot, and it’s going to be a huge honor to beat his record and be number one.”