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Alexander Ovechkin

He moves through the crowd like a rock star, trailed by the flotsam of his family and friends. Men in tuxedos stop him, smile, ask for his auto- graph. Women clad in slinky gowns coo at him with a rapturous look in their eyes. His father ushers over two NFL cheerleaders in hot pants and pushes them to- ward his son, who looks at them, his eyes half- lidded with disinterest, tugging on his shirt collar. He is an almost-handsome young man of 23, tall, with a Beatles mop of hair falling over his eyes, a broken nose, a missing front tooth, a stubble of beard. In his black suit, black shirt, and white tie, he looks like a character out of the movie Eastern Promises, as played by Jaws from the Bond flicks. Alexander Ovechkin is here at Sneaker Ball, held in the Washington, D.C. National Building Museum, to be honored as the D.C. Sportsman of the Year.

Ovechkin, a Moscow native, is the greatest hockey player on the planet. He was the Washington Capitals' number one overall draft choice in 2004, the NHL Rookie of the Year in 2006, the NHL MVP in 2008, the highest goal scorer for the past three years, and "the man who saved D.C. hockey," taking a last-place team in 2006 to their division championship in 2008. For all this he was rewarded with a key to the city and the sport's most lucrative contract ever, $124 million over 13 years.

Ovechkin is the son of Mikhail Ovechkin, a former professional football (soccer) player, and Tatyana Ovechkin, who won two Olympic gold medals while competing for the Soviet women's basketball team in the 1976 Summer Olympics at Montreal and in 1980 at Moscow. The first signs of Ovechkin's future came when he was a child. At the age of two, in a Soviet toy store, Alexander grabbed a toy stick and helmet and refused to let go. His parents treasure the picture to this day. As a small child, whenever he saw a hockey game on TV, he "dropped all his toys" and ran to the TV. He "protested strongly" if his parents tried to change the channel. His parents say they knew he would be an athlete when Alexander chose to run up the steps to their apartment rather than take the elevator.

He began playing hockey at the age of 7. Soon after he began, however, he had to postpone his hockey career because his parents were unable to take him to the rink. But one of Ovechkin's coaches saw Ovechkin's talent and communicated to his parents that he should continue to play hockey. Ovechkin's brother, Sergei, who later died in a car accident, saw that Alexander loved hockey and insisted that he be allowed to return. Since he studied at the Military Institute for Border Guards, Ovechkin did not have to go through compulsory military service.

In Russia, hockey teams build players in their systems from childhood. Ovechkin began playing in the Dynamo Moscow system. At 16, he made his debut for Dynamo Moscow in the Russian Superleague in the 2001-2002 season. In the 2003-2004 season, he won the Superleague award for Best Left Wing and became the youngest Dynamo Moscow player to lead the team in scoring. In 2004-2005, he missed nearly two months of play because of a shoulder injury sustained in the Gold Medal Game against Canada in the World Junior Championships.

Ovechkin is one of a handful of dynamic young players who are trying to lead the NHL to a resurgence after years of goonery, drabness, and declining revenues, which culminated in the disastrous lockout of 2004-2005. From Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins to the Flyers' Mike Richards, these new players are being aggressively marketed, not only for their talents but also for their larger-than-life personalities. The stakes are high. In the decade since Wayne Gretzky skated off into the sunset, hockey has been limping toward oblivion. It wasn't that long ago that the sport could legitimately claim its place alongside football, baseball, and basketball, but 2007's Stanley Cup produced record-low ratings for NBC, and the vast majority of games are shown not on a major network or even ESPN, but on cable's Versus network along with cycling, bull riding, and SlamBall. Can Ovechkin's emergence change all that?

Alex the Great has been called the most dangerous scorer in all of hockey, and his highlight reels have become YouTube must-sees. As with most prolific scorers, he can strike with a quick flick of his wrists or with a long, arm-sweeping slap shot. Three years ago he scored a goal that's been called the greatest shot ever, against the Gretzky-coached Phoenix Coyotes. Ovechkin was knocked to the ice; he slid on his back past the Coyotes' net; then, while still on his back, he reached his stick behind his head and flicked in the puck. Gretzky looked on in disbelief.

"Most skilled scorers are one-dimensional," says Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals' coach. "Alex, at 6'2", 220 pounds, is like a freight train with skills. He's aggressive, but with a deft touch. He can hit you into next week." Most Russian players have a reputation for being passionless drones, technically proficient but selfish, indifferent, sour, without heart. Boudreau calls them "gloomy," but as teammate Matt Bradley, 30, says, "Alexis the opposite of most Russian players. He likes to mix it up." "I like to hit people," Ovechkin concedes. "I like the dirty work."

Ovechkin says that when he came to America at 20, he was "scared...homesick...I leave everything," but still he insisted on rooming with a North American player, not a Russian. "I watch American TV. I want to learn English, be able to talk to people, hang out with teammates." He flashes his gap-toothed grin and adds, "Talk with American girls, too."

That first year, he spent his free time wandering D.C. to "watch beautiful city with lots of memorials. Watch girls, too. I am from Russia. We have fun." There are certainly more shocking things in the world than a Russian who likes to drink, but Ovechkin is a one-man vodka fountain. There were reports early in his career that the hockey player may have been drunk during an autograph signing at Wayne Gretzky's restaurant, but the “may have” part was scraped away as Ovechkin's offseason activities became a matter of public record. Though it's not like the Great One is any stranger to the sauce himself…

Despite press reports of Alex's luxurious mansion full of gorgeous Russian girlfriends, his life was low-key for a sports phenom. Since coming to America, he's lived at various times with his older brother and his parents. His father, Mikhail, a portly white- haired man who drove a taxi in Moscow, is a romantic who describes hockey as theater. His mother is a cold realist who thinks of hockey as her son does: "Like war," Alex says. Tatiana was a star Soviet Olympic basketball player during the Cold War. When asked if the Ovechkins would stay in America after Alex's hockey days are over, she says, "Americans treat my son wonderfully...But we not stay in America. Alex will give same answer."

I meet Ovechkin at his house in Arlington, Virginia. We're supposed to drive to Baltimore, where Alex is set to shoot a commercial for Hair Cuttery, a chain of discount salons where he got his first haircuts in America. I'm met outside by Alex's business agent, Konstantin Selinevich. "You can't come in," he says. "Wait outside until Alex is ready." Alex emerges 20 minutes later trailed by a petite blonde in cutoff jeans. She says something in Russian to Ovechkin and goes back into the house.

As we get into Ovechkin's Mercedes, he says to me, "Sit in back." Then he fires up his 700 hp AMG and peels out. I lean forward and ask if he has acquired any American ways. "No! No! No!" he says. "I am Rooshian. I stay Rooshian all my life." Then he cranks up Eastern European techno that drowns out any more questions.

Selinevich is 38 but looks much younger, a slight man with a short, spiky hairdo. He tells me he has been in America for ii years. When I ask what he's been doing, he says, "Selling drugs and banging girls. I bring Russian girls to whorehouses in States." Then he laughs.

The Hair Cuttery shoot is in an old brick building that used to be an oyster-shucking house. A white-haired man greets Ovechkin with a smile and says, "Ready for your cut?" Ovechkin, frowning, says, "No haircut." The man grins. "You're kidding, right?" "No haircut."

Ovechkin slumps down in a barber's chair. A beautician wearing a miniskirt and studded black boots pretends to be cutting his hair while Ovechkin is photographed and filmed. The shoot lasts four hours but was supposed to last eight. As we get ready to leave, Ovechldn says to me, "I told you I not get haircut."

Driving through Baltimore, he takes a pinch of tobacco and puts it inside his cheek. He comes up on the bumper of a Saab approaching a green light. The light turns yellow, and the Saab stops. Ovechkin screams out, "Go through fockink light! See what I mean! In Russia, yellow light means fock it. America too much rules. See cop, slow down. In America, you want to do something, you have to think. In Russia, just do it."

Ovechkin gets on the highway and speeds up. He says, "Here, Americans not care what they wear. In Moscow is more high fashion." He adds, "Russian girls more beautiful than American girls, too." When we reach Arlington, he drops me off at my hotel. Before I get out of the car, I ask one last question: What's the best advice he's ever been given in America? "Everyone tell me to be myself," Ovechkin says. "I am Rooshian. I am always myself."

Pat Jordan. Alexander the Great. Maxim [Print + Kindle] . January 2009.


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