TAMPA — Wherever Alex Ovechkin went during the NHL’s all-star weekend, outside of the time he spent dancing around the ice with a puck on his stick, he kept his iPhone at the ready.
The Washington Capitals’ star left winger took panned shots of the Metropolitan Division all-stars’ locker room. He fixed his camera on the Amalie Arena crowd’s ovation as he was introduced before the skills competition Saturday night. He filmed everything as if this were all something he had never done before, as if each moment were capable of producing a memory he wouldn’t want to forget.
The NHL, from the fans to his fellow stars, is following the 13th season of Ovechkin’s career with a similar level of attention. This was Ovechkin’s seventh All-Star Game, and because he received more votes than any other Metropolitan Division player, he was the captain of that team during the three-on-three tournament Sunday. That accomplishment rests on a long list of them for the 32-year-old this season.
In a win over the Florida Panthers on Thursday, Ovechkin reached two significant milestones. With a goal, he became the third player in NHL history to score 30 or more in each of the first 13 seasons of his career. With an assist, he reached 500 for his career and became the fourth active player to record 500 goals and 500 assists. He leads the NHL with 30 goals , and for good measure he stole the league’s hardest- shot competition Saturday, blasting a puck 101.3 mph to became the first forward since 2002 to win the event.
This is all happening as the NHL gets faster and younger with, as the All-Star Game showed, a new set of stars. But Ovechkin has lifted the Capitals into first place at the break and is reshaping the answer to the question: What does it mean to be “old” in today’s NHL?
“Well, it’s apparently not 32, right?” said Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, who is 30 and played for the Pacific Division team this weekend. “The hardest thing to do in this league is score goals. Alex can obviously do that as well as anyone, and there is no sign of him slowing down.”
The league’s wave of youth rolled into Tampa this weekend with 15 first-time all-stars. They weren’t all young players — 10-year veteran Josh Bailey of the New York Islanders made the Atlantic Division team, for example — but there were plenty of fresh faces joining the NHL’s best. Only 11 of the 36 total skaters were 30 years or older. Ovechkin was the fourth-oldest skater, behind only San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns, who is also 32, and New Jersey Devils center Brian Boyle and Minnesota Wild defenseman Eric Staal, both 33.
The Capitals’ captain was one of the most consistent topics of conversation across the three-day event. Young players, such as 21-year-old Buffalo Sabres star Jack Eichel and 22-year-old Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon, discussed growing up as Ovechkin fans and marveled at his longevity. Tyler Seguin, a 25-year-old center for the Dallas Stars, joked that he wants to ask Ovechkin whether he ever aims his shot or just lets it rip. Detroit Red Wings defenseman Mike Green, who played with Ovechkin in Washington and is only a few weeks younger than his former teammate, said that this Ovechkin and the Ovechkin of 10 years ago are not much different.
Theories about how Ovechkin has kept up his goal-scoring pace varied but centered on the same themes: the slap shot; the ability to operate in small, shrinking windows of space; the notion that goals always will be goals, no matter how they come or how old the scorer is.
Ovechkin has faced perpetual scrutiny that he is slowing down, that he is not in shape, that he is in the back half of a career that will be full of hollow statistics and unfulfilled objectives. That was heightened last season when he finished with a career-low 16 even-strength goals, discounting the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. This season, those criticisms have been quieted, and Ovechkin’s age has gone from a slight to a strength.
“I’m 31, and I’ve never felt better,” said Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler, who played in his first All-Star Game . “He came in the league a little bit different than I did. He’s had the wear and tear of the playoffs, and he’s had to carry a big burden. I think we’re probably a bit different 31 and 32, but, I mean, the guy’s looking better than ever.”
On Saturday, Ovechkin and Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos answered questions on a wooden deck off the coast of Old Tampa Bay. Ovechkin was reminded that it was here in Tampa, 14 years ago, where he was first introduced to NHL media as a top prospect at a meet-and-greet during the 2004 Stanley Cup finals a few weeks before the Capitals drafted him first overall.
Then, he had stringy dark-brown bangs covering his forehead and no facial hair. Now his hair is a dull silver, a beard covers his face, and he was asked, along with Stamkos, whether there is more pressure to produce in a league trending toward teenagers and players in their early 20s.
“I know Alex is a little older than I am, but this is my 10th year, and I’ll be 28 in the next couple weeks, and I feel like an old guy almost,” Stamkos said. “It’s pretty amazing to see how young the league has become but even more amazing to see how good these kids are coming up.”
Stamkos continued on about how he tries to keep up with his younger teammates, three of them also all-stars, and how the youngest players were not as advanced a decade ago. But sitting next to him was a player whose career numbers say otherwise, who was only a 20-year-old rookie when he finished with 106 points (52 goals, 54 assists), 22 years old when he won his first of three Hart Memorial trophies, and is still going.
Now it was Ovechkin’s turn to speak — and maybe offer some secret or insight into how he has sustained such a high level of play into the first month of 2018. He smirked and leaned toward the microphone.
“Hundred percent agree with Stamkos,” Ovechkin said, and that was that.