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The legacy of Alex Ovechkin, at 800 objectives and counting

Date:

As the Russian hockey star takes intention on the NHL’s biggest scorers, his off-ice legacy is changing into more durable to outline. And he’s nonetheless not prepared to speak about it.

Ovechkin posed through the Washington Capitals’ media day. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Comment

One morning within the fall of 2001, gamers for Dynamo Moscow have been ready to take the ice for apply forward of the upcoming Russian Superleague season because the Zamboni accomplished its lazy, oval circuit across the rink, making the ice gleam like glass. Luzhniki Small Sports Arena in Moscow’s southwestern nook was in any other case empty, with the group implementing a strict no-spectators rule. There have been no exceptions — not even for the dad and mom of the 16-year-old phenom who would play that season alongside grown males as previous as 32.

But as he waited, that child, Alex Ovechkin, noticed one thing: In the windshield of the Zamboni, the place usually there’s solely the face of the motive force, a second face could possibly be seen peering by means of the fogged-up glass. It was Ovechkin’s father, Mikhail — and when he caught his son’s eye, he grinned fiendishly.

“I’m looking around, and I see his little head,” Ovechkin recalled with fun. “He would never miss my practices.”

Now 37 and the residing success of the outrageous promise that teenage phenom as soon as harbored, Ovechkin advised that story on a grey Monday afternoon in a lounge off the foyer of the Washington Capitals’ group resort in Chicago, close to the tip of a grueling stretch of street video games, in the midst of a season of extraordinary achievement for the three-time NHL MVP.


Alex Ovechkin is 2 objectives from passing Gordie Howe for second all time and 95 from breaking Wayne Gretzky’s NHL report.

Howe performed within the World Hockey Association for six seasons

Howe

52 years

and 6

days previous

Ovechkin

37 years

and 87

days previous

Gretzky

38 years

and 82

days previous

Source: hockey-reference.com

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Alex Ovechkin is 2 objectives from passing Gordie Howe for second all time and 95 from breaking Wayne Gretzky’s NHL report.

Howe performed in

the World Hockey Association for

six seasons

Howe

52 years

and 6 days

previous

Ovechkin

37 years

and 87 days

previous

Gretzky

38 years

and 82 days

previous

Source: hockey-reference.com

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Alex Ovechkin is 2 objectives from passing Gordie Howe for second all time and 95 from breaking Wayne Gretzky’s NHL report.

Howe performed in

the World Hockey Association for

six seasons

Ovechkin

37 years and

87 days previous

Gretzky

38 years and

82 days previous

Howe

52 years and

6 days previous

Source: hockey-reference.com

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

The subsequent night time in opposition to the Chicago Blackhawks, Ovechkin would report the 798th, 799th and 800th objectives of his storied profession, changing into simply the third participant in additional than a century of NHL historical past to succeed in that milestone. On Saturday at Capital One Arena, he’ll take the ice for the Capitals standing only one objective behind Gordie Howe for second place all-time and 94 objectives — or roughly two full seasons at his present tempo — behind Wayne Gretzky for first.

“He’s historic. How else do you explain what is happening here?” marveled Ted Leonsis, who has owned the Capitals for everything of the Ovechkin period. “Wayne Gretzky’s record — nobody thought it could be broken. When Alex had his first couple of great years, people said, ‘We’ve seen this before — guys score 50, 60, 70 goals.’ But to maintain that over this period of time and not get hurt? And now it seems like every game there’s some record he’s breaking.”

It might not have been Ovechkin’s intention, however the story of his father and the Zamboni managed to tug collectively all the key themes swirling round him as he bears down on Howe and turns his sights towards Gretzky: his deep Russian roots and almost decade-long friendship with President Vladimir Putin, with all of the complexities therein throughout a time of battle; the enduring bond of household for a person who’s each a loyal son and a father; the hockey legacy Ovechkin has been forging on two continents since childhood; and the defining sense of loyalty that has tethered him to only one Russian group (Dynamo) and one American group (Washington) for everything of his 22-year skilled profession.

“I only played [for] two teams. If there was no NHL, I’d probably stay with Dynamo for whole career,” he mentioned. “Obviously, I didn’t know much about city or the team when I came to Washington. But the people who was around me welcomed me to the team, to the country, help me grow up. That’s why you are thankful and don’t want to change it. All the guys who stay with one team, they have a chance to go somewhere [else] for more money, but they didn’t — because it became home, a place where you want to stay. I probably couldn’t [picture] myself in another uniform.”

He has been pondering so much recently of his dad and mom, Tatyana and Mikhail. Mom was the standout level guard for the Soviet Union basketball group that took gold on the 1976 and 1980 Olympics, and Dad was a soccer participant. Once fixtures at Ovechkin’s many milestone moments throughout his 18-season NHL profession, they’ll’t journey to the United States anymore due to Mikhail’s declining well being. The greatest they’ll do is keep up late — or get up early, relying on what time the puck drops — to look at his video games and congratulate him by way of a postgame cellphone name when he scores. (Reached at residence this week, Tatyana Ovechkina declined an interview request.)

“When I was growing up,” Ovechkin mentioned, “parents always telling me: ‘You have to stay who you are. You can’t change — doesn’t matter how much money you have.’ ”

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Four years in the past, Ovechkin turned a father himself, when he and spouse Nastya welcomed son Sergei, named for the brother who died when Ovechkin was 10. A second son, Ilya, arrived in 2020. They issue into each facet of Ovechkin’s future, and the boys’ burgeoning love of the sport offers him additional motivation to proceed enjoying — to share with them the legacy he’s constructing on the ice. In the meantime, 4-year-old Sergei, nicknamed “Little Ovi,” already has demonstrated a superb lefty shot.

Asked how good can Little Ovi be, Ovechkin paused and mentioned with no hint of irony, “Hopefully better than me.”

The first sentence of Ovechkin’s Hockey Hall of Fame plaque is more likely to trumpet his goal-scoring mark, the one query being whether or not he’s first or second all-time. The second sentence is more likely to be aware the Stanley Cup title he helped convey to the Capitals in 2018 after years of irritating flameouts within the playoffs.

That championship was a second that marked each a climax and a turning level for Ovechkin, permitting the autumn of his profession to proceed with out the suffocating stress and scrutiny of being the man who couldn’t win all of it — a tag that wounded him externally and internally.

“After all the disappointments we have in previous years, it’s like, ‘Okay, is this my fault, or is this organizational thing?’ ” Ovechkin mentioned of his personal introspection. “Sometimes when you look at the roster or the team that we have, this is championship [caliber] team. We have depth; we have skill players. But we didn’t do it. So you asking yourself what you can do better. … If you lose, obviously people going to put a finger on you and say, like, ‘Ah, this guy, he’s not a winner.’ Oh, yeah, I heard it a lot — from the fans, you [media] guys. But people have to understand, it’s team sport. It’s not about one guy.”

Ovechkin has clearly thought of his legacy past the report ebook. He has at all times saved one foot in Russia, the place he spends a lot of his offseasons and stays essentially the most well-known sports activities star within the nation, and one in America. He has a youth hockey academy in Moscow and has goals of opening one other within the D.C. space. Of late, he has advised pals of a need to have a job within the Capitals’ group as soon as he retires.

But the legacy query isn’t one he is able to handle. Last month, after an on-ice ceremony marking Ovechkin’s NHL report for objectives scored with one franchise, Capitals President Dick Patrick tried to thank him for all the things he has dropped at the group. Ovechkin brushed him off, saying: “No, no, no. Thank me when I retire.”

On Monday in Chicago, when requested what he hoped his legacy could be, Ovechkin, by no means recognized for his protection, swatted the query away like a penalty-killing grinder who would take a puck to the face to forestall a objective.

“First of all, I’m not done yet,” he mentioned. “And secondly, it’s a long way to end of my career. We’ll see at the end.”

Legacies are ever-evolving and fragile. And on this of all years, the query of Ovechkin’s has grown sophisticated.

At an alumni reception two months in the past at Capital One Arena, which sits roughly 10 blocks from the White House, former Capitals gamers mingled with present ones. Handshakes have been exchanged. Selfies have been taken. Stories have been advised.

And then all of a sudden, Dmitri Khristich was standing in entrance of Alex Ovechkin.

Khristich, a Capitals ahead from 1990 to 1995 and once more from 2000 to 2002, was the final Washington participant of consequence to put on No. 8 earlier than Ovechkin, who selected the quantity as a result of his mom wore it. Over that alumni weekend, a few of Khristich’s ex-teammates had taken to calling him “Original Eight” to distinguish him from Ovechkin, “The Great Eight.”

Khristich, 53, is Ukrainian. He and his household — spouse Oleksandra and 16-year-old stepson Ilya — have been pressured to go away their residence in Kremenchuk, an industrial metropolis roughly 200 miles southeast of Kyiv, after Russia invaded the nation in February. He is working half time for the Ukrainian hockey federation, serving to put together its under-25 nationwide group for subsequent month’s World University Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.

At the alumni perform, Khristich mentioned later, Ovechkin was startled to see him. But ultimately Ovechkin requested politely, “How are things over there?”

“They are bad,” Khristich replied. But relatively than elaborate and danger escalating the scenario, he let it go at that, and the 2 quickly moved on to different faces.

“We weren’t there for that kind of reason,” Khristich defined lately in a Zoom interview from Philadelphia, the place his household has settled in the intervening time. He spends a lot of his time watching video games from the Ukrainian Hockey League, which is within the midst of a patchwork common season schedule that, in line with Khristich, typically sees video games interrupted by sirens, with everybody decamping to a bomb shelter till the menace passes.

Asked about Ovechkin’s public stance, Khristich mentioned: “We condemn anyone who supports in any way that terrorist country. … Obviously, [Ovechkin] is here … to play hockey, and that’s what he does. His other point of view, I totally condemn his point of view.”

But what’s Ovechkin’s perspective? The reply is elusive, even perhaps fluid. His longtime help for and friendship with Putin, relationship a minimum of way back to 2014, is well-known. He famously began a social media motion referred to as Putin Team in 2017, forward of the 2018 Russian elections, and his Instagram profile image stays a posed shot of him and Putin.

“I have never hidden my attitude toward our president, always supporting him,” Ovechkin wrote in Russian in 2017. “I am confident that there are many of us, supporting Vladimir Putin. So let’s unite and show everyone a united and strong Russia!”

At a information convention in February, days after the Ukraine invasion started, Ovechkin distanced himself from that help, although not as adamantly as some would have most popular. “I am not in politics,” he mentioned then. “Like, I am athlete.” Later, he added, “Please, no more war.” In May, when pressed about his help of Putin, Ovechkin advised The Washington Post: “He is my president, right? I am Russian. What else can I say?”

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Ahead of Ovechkin’s interview with The Post on Monday, a Capitals spokesman mentioned Ovechkin wouldn’t make any additional feedback concerning the battle or Putin. When requested throughout that interview whether or not that have been true or whether or not he wished to make clear or amend something he mentioned in February, Ovechkin mentioned, “I think it’s enough, what I said.” Asked whether or not the criticism has diminished his enjoyment of this second, he mentioned, “Not really, because it’s a situation [where] you can’t do anything.”

People near Ovechkin defend his impartial stance, saying there are complicated causes for it, together with his large visibility in Russia, the very fact his dad and mom stay in Moscow and a censorship regulation the Kremlin enacted in March making it against the law to criticize the battle effort. Others see Ovechkin’s closeness together with his dad and mom, his one-team tenure within the NHL and his Russian patriotism as completely different features of the identical defining character trait: deep loyalty.

Even the choice to maintain Ovechkin’s Instagram profile picture with Putin is fraught with penalties: Keeping it invitations undesirable scrutiny in America, however altering it could invite much more scrutiny, if not worse, in Russia.

“In his mind, he’s doing the right thing,” mentioned one one that has recognized Ovechkin since his Dynamo days, talking on the situation of anonymity to freely talk about a delicate topic. “He thinks of himself as a patriotic Russian who loves his country. Hopefully in the last nine months he has realized [Putin] is out of control, and maybe he has changed his opinion. But he has been behind [Putin] so long, he’s in a precarious situation. It’s better for him to say nothing.”

The NHL and the Capitals have managed to comprise the difficulty this season, although it nonetheless rages on social media and elsewhere. In Calgary and Edmonton, the place there are massive Ukrainian populations, Ovechkin has been met with boos.

In the Capitals’ dressing room, the subject is studiously prevented.

“We all decided not to talk about that,” mentioned heart Nicklas Backstrom, who has performed in additional than 1,000 video games alongside Ovechkin. “I know the war was wrong, but I’m not going to sit there and discuss that with him. He’s in a tough position. He didn’t start the war, so it should definitely not take away from what kind of athlete he is. He’s just a regular guy chasing records and wanting to be a great hockey player.”

The similar goes for the chief workplaces. In March, the Capitals launched an announcement condemning the battle, including that they stand “in full support of our Russian players and their families overseas. We realize they are being put in a difficult position and stand by to offer our assistance to them and their families.”

Asked lately what he would say to followers who really feel conflicted about Ovechkin given his public pro-Putin stance, Leonsis mentioned: “You don’t have to be conflicted. I just think he’s playing hockey. And the joy that he has given us, the love he has shown for the fans, for the community — everyone should have permission to return it. I certainly do.

“I keep my politics out of [it]. I have my political leanings and opinion,” Leonsis added. “But when I’m at a game and I’m watching him play, I’m admiring how he plays. And I’m not thinking about what country is he from and what’s happening. I understand why you have to address it, but no, people have permission to return the love that he has been giving everybody.”

Not everyone seems to be prepared to simply accept the compartmentalization that enables Ovechkin’s hockey persona to be saved separate from his political one.

“I know it’s a sport, but you can’t pull the sports away from the politics, with what is going on now,” Ukrainian defenseman Alexei Zhitnik, who performed within the NHL from 1992 to 2008, mentioned in a phone interview. “I don’t know [Ovechkin’s] mind. Maybe he’s against the war but he’s afraid to say it. But also, if you don’t say anything, you’re for it. You have to speak out. Tomorrow it’s too late. You had 10, 11 months [since the invasion began] to say anything. If you’re quiet, you are either afraid or you love war.”

Hall of Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek additionally has been outspoken about Ovechkin’s ties to Putin, utilizing an expletive on Twitter to explain Ovechkin’s temporary February information convention and calling for the NHL to droop the contracts of Russian gamers till the invasion ends.

While some worldwide sports activities federations, together with the International Ice Hockey Federation, banned Russian groups from competitors, the NHL, with roughly 50 Russian gamers on its rosters, shouldn’t be recognized to have thought-about the same ban of people. In a March assertion, it mentioned these gamers “play in the NHL on behalf of their NHL Clubs, and not on behalf of Russia.”

Reached in his native Czech Republic on Thursday, Hasek remained unrelenting, saying in a textual content message that Ovechkin “by his actions helps Russian politics and all the crimes that are connected with it” and that the NHL, by allowing Russian gamers within the league, is “responsible for both huge economic damages and many lost lives.”

“I don’t even blame Alex himself, but above all the NHL,” Hasek continued. “… Speaking positively about the NHL and [Ovechkin] at this moment means supporting the war and being responsible for everything connected with Russian aggression. And I won’t do that. That is against my good conscience.”

One afternoon in Philadelphia in early December, Ovechkin sat reverse Mark Howe in a pair of soft chairs organized underneath TV lights. As producers threaded clip-on mics by means of their shirts, getting ready to tape a tv particular that may air when Ovechkin received nearer to Gordie Howe’s mark, Ovechkin and Howe’s son made small speak.

They talked about among the uncanny resemblances between the superstars. How each Gordie Howe and Ovechkin have been enormous for his or her eras. How they’re each related virtually solely with one NHL franchise (Howe spent 25 of his 26 NHL seasons with the Detroit Red Wings). And, oddly, how each have been right-handed shooters who produced two hockey-playing sons who shot left-handed.

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“Your dad, he came back to play with you, right?” Ovechkin requested Mark Howe, himself an completed participant who adopted his father into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011 in addition to a gracious man who has taken it upon himself to fill in for Gordie, who died in 2016, on the welcome committee for the 800-goal membership.

“That’s right,” Howe mentioned, recalling how Gordie got here out of retirement in 1973 at 45 to play together with his teenage sons, Mark and Marty, on the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. “And then he played until he was 52.”

Ovechkin grew quiet, the gears in his mind virtually buzzing with thought, then shook his head. He wished the maths to work, nevertheless it simply wouldn’t. If Sergei and Ilya Ovechkin make it to the NHL, their dad might be lengthy since retired. And he received’t be coming again.

“Even if it’s possible,” Ovechkin mentioned later, with completely paradoxical logic, “it’s not possible.”

If it wasn’t clear again when he signed his five-year, $47.5 million contract with the Capitals in July 2021, it’s clear now the deal had twin functions: to permit Ovechkin to complete his profession in Washington and to hold him to the doorstep of Gretzky’s report — and hopefully past.

“He was insistent on [five years]. I thought maybe three years and go from there,” General Manager Brian MacLellan recalled. “But in his mind, it was, ‘Here’s what I need [to get to Gretzky].’ And he was adamant about it: ‘I want five. I can play five. I won’t let you down. I’m going to play five.’ ”

Asked how lengthy he intends to play, Ovechkin mentioned: “It’s still fun. You still want to go out there and play the game. As soon as I don’t have that enjoyment, I probably retire. I respect this game so much and love this game so much, I don’t want to be embarrassing out there and do something that people going to say, ‘Well, that’s it.’ ”

The math for 900 objectives — to select a handy, spherical quantity simply past Gretzky’s mark — is outrageous. A participant should common 45 objectives for 20 years — a threshold neither Howe nor Gretzky reached after turning 30 however Ovechkin has already hit 5 occasions in his 30s, with a present tempo that may give him a sixth this season — to only barely get there.

Gretzky, by means of a spokesperson, declined an interview request for this story. But he predicted on a TNT telecast in October that it was a matter of “when not if” Ovechkin passes him.

“It’s insane, that number of goals,” Capitals ahead T.J. Oshie mentioned. “But he’s a different type of player. He’s the most natural goal scorer I’ve ever seen, without a doubt. He finds areas where the puck is going to go in. He has the shot, the strength, the power behind it. But even more than that, you appreciate how many times he’s played through injury, how few games he’s missed. I’ve missed 115 more games than him in our careers. That’s a lot of games.”

Even if gamers wore numberless uniforms, it has at all times been simple to select Ovechkin on the ice. He was the tank with the Porsche engine, the one with the patented bunny hop of a primary step. At 6-foot-3 and 238 kilos, he was larger than anybody who ever had a shot as lethal as his and extra gifted than anybody as massive. He introduced his presence within the first shift of his NHL debut at 20, smashing poor Radoslav Suchy of the Columbus Blue Jackets so onerous into the boards that it broke the glass.

Seventeen years later, with salt-and-pepper hair and an engine that may now not go 200 mph for 20 minutes of ice time every night time, Ovechkin has needed to make delicate concessions due to his age.

“He’s adjusted. He’s older. He’s not as much of a rush player as he used to be,” MacLellan mentioned. “He used to take guys on one-on-one. He has to limit that now. He used to be able to take over games physically. Now, once in a while, he picks his spots. He’ll throw a really good check. But you can’t play that way at that age or you won’t last.”

The approach the Capitals deploy Ovechkin definitely helps make a run at Gretzky attainable. According to hockey analytics website MoneyPuck, whereas Ovechkin’s five-on-five scoring fee (1.0 objectives per 60 minutes) is close to a profession low, he stays an elite power-play scorer, and the Capitals use him on that unit at a near-league-high fee (95.2 % of attainable five-on-four ice time). Additionally, he begins 23.3 % of his shifts within the offensive zone, close to the very best within the league, and solely 2.1 % within the defensive zone, close to the bottom within the league, decreasing his end-to-end mileage.

“Basically,” mentioned Peter Tanner, MoneyPuck’s founder, “if hockey had a designated hitter, it would be Ovechkin.”

But designated hitters can nonetheless rake, particularly when given a gradual weight loss plan of meatballs. Career objectives Nos. 794, 795, 796 and 797 have been empty-netters, however they counted all the identical, and the calls nonetheless got here by means of from Mom and Dad in Moscow afterward.

“A goal,” defined the person who’s his era’s main professional on the topic, “is a goal.”

With Ovechkin having already misplaced some 150 video games in his profession to a pair of lockouts and a worldwide pandemic — and with all his years of fine well being maybe tempting destiny — nothing could be taken as a right. Even one other 50-goal season in 2022-23 wouldn’t assure extra wholesome years. Gretzky was completed by 38. The Capitals determine to blow out the celebration for Ovechkin’s 802nd objective as a result of there isn’t any assure there might be an 895th.

“It’s such a historic story for him to be with one organization all that time,” Leonsis mentioned, extolling the virtues of the shared loyalty between the Capitals and Ovechkin. “And I pray for a happy ending.”

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