Alexander Ovechkin is a Dynamo man, has always been and in his heart, always will be. Born in Moscow, Ovechkin grew up idolizing Alexander Maltsev. It doesn’t matter that Maltsev had retired a year before Ovechkin was born. Maltsev is arguably the greatest Dynamo player ever, and Ovechkin is shooting for that level.
Or so we presume. Though Ovechkin’s English is pretty good, he chose to use an interpreter for this interview. And to whatever question asked, the response through the interpreter is “No problem.”
“Alexander, what was your main goal going into the season?”
“No problem, it has been a good season.”
“Why did you idolize Maltsev?”
“No problem, I like the way he scored.”
“But he retired before you were born.”
“No problem, I have seen video tapes.”
Truth be told, “no problem” is probably the only right answer when it comes to Ovechkin. The 6-2, 200-pound winger is so good, Panthers general manager Rick Dudley tried to change the definition of time to get him.
Here’s what happened: The NHL’s draft rules state that a player must turn 18 by September 15 in the year of the draft to be eligible. Ovechkin was born on September 17, 1985.
Dudley’s contention at the draft was that since there had been four leap years since Ovechkin’s birth, he was actually 18 years and two days on September 15. On Dudley’s fourth attempt to convince the NHL of this, the league allowed the Panthers to pick Ovechkin in the ninth round. The pick was later ruled ineligible so the race is still on: Whoever wins the draft lottery this June will get Ovechkin.
And what will they get?
“If he’s not one of the next superstars, I don’t know anything about hockey,” Göran Stubb, European director of the NHL’s Central Scouting Service, told Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun.
Ovechkin is a big and powerful winger who likes to hit, has a great wrist shot, fast release and a hockey sense that really sets him apart from the rest. He hast the tools to become a complete player, though right now he is very offensive minded.
Proof came in January at the World Junior Hockey Championships in Helsinki, Finland. There he was, the captain of the Russian team and its second youngest player, playing few and short shifts in the third period of the quarterfinal because of all the Russian penalties. (Naturally, it was “no problem.”) Then, at 11.55 remaining, he jumped in, skated straight to the Finnish net, took a pass between two defensemen, and fired a wrist shot past touted Bruins goalie prospect Hannu Toivonen. Ovechkin never skated that fast towards their own end as he did celebrating that goal.
A scorer lives by his goals. A sniper needs his goals to survive.
“He reminds me a lot of young Teemu Selanne,” says Sakari Pietila, the European scouting coordinator for the Blackhawks. “The way he moves and looks is very similar.”
But Ovechkin is considered an exceptional player because he does more than score.
“What makes him so special is the fact that he is a great team player,” Pietila says. “He works hard, he makes hits, he blocks shots, he gives pep talks to his teammates – in addition to being an awesomely skilled player.”
”Alexander Ovechkin is an excellent all-around player, he’s got great speed and hands,” Stubb says. “He is a big guy who can stand his ground, and he knows how to play every aspect of the game. Alexander is also a very balanced and polite young man, maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that he comes from a sports family.”
Ovechkin’s mother, Tatiana, is a two-time Olympic champion in basketball (1976 and 1980) and his father was a soccer player. Ovechkin’s late brother, Sergei, was a wrestler and introduced Alexander to hockey. (Sergei was killed in a car accident in 2000).
The Russian Ice Hockey Federation also is very aware of how good Ovechkin can be. In fact, it has asked Ovechkin’s parents to make sure that whoever picks and signs him lets him play in the Junior World Championships in 2005.
Ovechkin also has high expectations fo himself. After Russia beat Slovakia for fifth place at the World juniors, he said he wasn’t satisfied with his play during the tournament. “I thought I was well prepared but for some reason, I didn’t get the puck to go my way,” he said through an interpreter. He didnt think being touted as the tournament’s biggest star had any effect on his play – his sub-par play, in his own words. Still, he finished in the top 10 in scoring – with five goals and two assists – and was one of Team Russian’s three players honored after the tournament.
Stubb says Ovechkin most likely will play for Russia at the World Championships in May in Prague, Czech Republic. In June, Ovechkin will fly to Raleigh, NC and become the second Russian player to be drafted first overall. (Ilya Kovalchuk, in 2001, was the first). First round, first choice, just like Mario Lemieux and Owen Nolan, the two players Ovechkin likes to watch.
“I am sure he could play in the NHL next season, but I am not convinced that whoever picks him should bring him over right away,” Pietila says. “He is going to be a great player, but he is still young.”
Ovechkin is said to have only one problem. According to Russian hockey tradition, young players have to help the trainers cary equipment bags and sticks. Being the youngest on the team, Ovechkin has to do his part. But that’s not the problem. The problem arises when he has to carry the sticks in one hand – and all the game’s prizes and awards in the other.
During the World Junior gold medal game between the US and Canada, Ovechkin walked around Helsinki Arena with two teammates. When they came close to the lounge where the NHL scouts were hanging around, Ovechkin got left behind his friends. Somebody was stopping him every three feet.
He spoke with everyone, shook hands and joked around. Everybody wanted to rub elbows with him.
Through it all, Ovechkin oozed a calmness that is rare in a teenager. Nothing seemed to faze him – not looming lockouts, agents, reporters. Maybe it’s because he likes being in the eye of the storm. In there, it’s calm, and time stands still. For him, it’s like skating into the slot, and waiting for the pass.
Things are good. No problem.
Published in the Sporting News, February 2, 2004