Getting Alex Ovechkin to quickly admit he was a few pounds too heavy last season is like getting my dog to admit that she doesn’t really want to savor squirrel meat between her molars; both breeds are stubborn, genetically predisposed to denial.
“Just the equipment,” Ovi said when asked if he is much leaner and meaner this season. “Maybe [I am leaner], I don’t know.”
I had come to see if Alexander the Girth is now a picture of fitness, whether all this “Ovi is a Chunker” gossip had gotten to him last season and in late July, when his abdomen region appeared to greatly protrude from his tight, designer T-shirt during a interview on the Caps’ Web site.
If Ovi didn’t work out more this summer or have his jaw medically wired shut,he was courting two kinds of danger:
1. The balky knee that forced him to miss three games last March (the same knee no one will officially admit he had scoped) would have more undue pressure put upon it. And 2. Sally Jenkins would soon compare him to rotund Rex Grossman.
Ovechkin is cryptic about who helped him tone his muscles and how he managed to report to training camp in the best shape of his career. But facts are facts: Hockey’s most electrifying player had neither his best season statistically nor did his tremendously skilled team advance beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs since the Capitals became contenders four years ago.
When every player on the team, including Ovechkin, received a midsummer letter from Coach Bruce Boudreau — instructing them of strength-and-conditioning tests at the outset of training camp for the first time in their Washington careers — the Caps knew the organization meant business.
“I think it’s a wake-up call,” said Jason Chimera, who trained hard in Edmonton like he does every summer. “Any time you get a letter from the coach and you read it and he tells you he wants you to be in the best shape [of your career] . . .instead of coming to camp to see what happens, I think it’s great. Guys who get that letter get mentally checked in right away.”
Near as everyone can tell around the Caps, Ovi at his most portly probably tipped the scales at somewhere around 240 pounds last season. Naturally big and muscular, he is a beefcake to begin with. But that much weight on his 6-foot-2 frame made Ovechkin resemble more of an NFL linebacker than a hydroplaning NHL winger.
He is closer to or below 230 pounds this year. Standing next to him on Saturday night, it was hard not to notice the angular lines in his face. Maybe it was the new equipment deal he signed with Bauer in the offseason. Maybe it was his haircut. Either way, he actually looked thinner.
“I come to training camp much better shape,” he finally admitted. “It’s kind of situation where you realize you have to take step forward instead of step back.”
Ted Leonsis must be glad to hear that. On his way out of town after another playoff flameout in May, Ovechkin told the Capitals owner he would not get in the shape during the season like last year, that he would change his fitness regimen.
“A couple of things happened this year,” Leonsis said of Ovi making good on his promise. “There were no fires or smoke in Moscow like the summer before. Alex likes running and biking and he couldn’t go outside. This summer he could. Also, I think he took to heart this whole thing about, ‘Alex is fat.’ Alex was never fat. But Alex is now a beast. He’s big, he’s fast and he reshaped his body again.”
We don’t know whether this was because of Jenny Craig, P90X, eating strictly Ukrainian beluga and sardines or merely getting off his behind and working out at home; Ovi won’t tell us.
We do know he is getting sick of going home early in the postseason. We do know that Sidney Crosby’s return to greatness is no longer guaranteed and that hockey needs a svelte Ovi as much as the Caps do.
Finally — and I’m sure the Great Eight will agree with this sentiment — “The Russian Machine” just sounds better than the “The Moscow Marshmallow.”