Thursday April 14th, 2016

This story appears in the April 18, 2016 edition of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.

Before his ride reached the Japanese restaurant on the California coast, Alex Ovechkin already knew how dinner with Wayne Gretzky would go. “I’m going to ask him a lot of questions,” Ovechkin said in the car. Meeting the Great One was not an opportunity for the Great Eight to waste.

True to his promise, the Capitals winger spent that night in mid-March hopscotching through topics, gleaning whatever he could from an idol, yes, but also peering into his own future. How did Gretzky manage his body after turning 30, which Ovechkin did last September? How did Gretzky feel hoisting four Stanley Cups, something Ovechkin hasn’t done once? “How he trained, how he played, all different stuff,” Ovechkin says. At some point he started sheepishly prefacing requests with, “Is it all right if I ask one more?” As dinner ended after several hours, Ovechkin requested that Gretzky stick around a little longer, feeling there was still more ground to cover. 

This amused Gretzky. Such enthusiasm, he told Ovechkin, reminded him of the first time he met Gordie Howe. “I could’ve asked questions for two days,” Gretzky says. “I had that same sense with Alex.”

The timing felt right for Ovechkin to seek such counsel. Even after losing to the Kings in overtime the night before, he and the Capitals were cruising toward the league’s best record; in less than three weeks they would clinch the Presidents’ Trophy before any other Eastern Conference team secured a playoff berth. Ovechkin, meanwhile, remains the same dominant goal scorer. On Nov. 19 he overtook Sergei Fedorov atop the Russian-born career list. On Jan. 10 he became the fifth fastest to reach 500. On April 9 a hat trick in St. Louis gave him three straight 50-goal seasons, or three more than the rest of the NHL in that time. But these days his individual milestones only highlight what he still lacks. 

“I have everything in my career besides a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal,” he says. “Nobody remembers who’s second place. Everyone remembers the winner.” Later, when asked what resonated most about his dinner with Ovechkin, Gretzky replied, “How much passion he has for the game and how badly he wants to win a Stanley Cup.”

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Fortunately for their captain, the Capitals, SI’s pick to win the first championship in their 41-year history, have never been better equipped to help. “This is the year,” Ovechkin firmly says. Goaltender Braden Holtby’s 48 wins tied Martin Brodeur’s single-season record. For the first time in six years, five other Capitals reached the 20-goal mark. Ovechkin himself topped the NHL in goals (50) for the fourth straight season, but 23-year-old center Evgeny Kuznetsov became the first teammate ever to best him in points (77 to Ovechkin’s 71). “There’s more balance,” GM Brian MacLellan says. “It’s not always Ovi, Ovi, Ovi.”

Like each response Gretzky offered at dinner, these changes around Ovechkin only invite more curiosity. Will the Capitals’ regular-season dominance continue in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs? Can Ovechkin soothe the nerves of their nail-biting fans, who haven’t enjoyed so much as a conference finals appearance this century? And what does it say about Ovechkin that on the back nine of his career, he would seek advice from Gretzky before taking his best crack yet at a title?

About this last part, Capitals coach Barry Trotz has a theory. “He’s asking how to get to the Promised Land, how can he be a better player,” Trotz says. “When he was younger, that probably wouldn’t be on his radar. As he’s getting older, he realizes he doesn’t have all those answers, so he’s on a journey to find those answers.

“It’s part of realizing you’re a little bit mortal.”

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Looking back on it almost two years later, Trotz’s first meeting with his superstar forward bears a passing resemblance to the rendezvous of the Great Integers. Instead of seafood by the shore, though, Trotz and Ovechkin ate steak at a casino restaurant in Las Vegas.

It was June 2014. Ovechkin was attending the NHL’s annual awards ceremony, where he would accept his fourth of six Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophies as the league’s leading goal scorer. That season the Capitals had missed the playoffs for the first time since ’06–07, which led to the firing of GM George McPhee and coach Adam Oates. Pressure was mounting on Ovechkin, who as captain shouldered much of the criticism for yet another letdown (not to mention the Russian team’s fifth-place finish on home soil in the ’14 Sochi Olympics). Still, those disappointments were behind him; the bright sun and lively pool decks of Vegas gave Ovechkin a chance to relax.

Trotz, on the other hand, spent the previous month thinking about how he could make the most of this dinner. After leaving Nashville after 15 seasons, he had replaced Oates that May, and among his first congratulatory messages was one from Ovechkin, who called from the Kremlin after winning gold in the world championships. “Those were good signs,” Trotz says. “That was a sign of leadership.” Still, there was plenty more he hoped to learn.

Spanning four hours, Trotz says, his conversation with Ovechkin included “everything from what his ideal weight would be to how the team played, how he played, what he liked about the Caps, what he didn’t like, to his family, the city, his goals and a little bit of old Russian history.” But these were all appetizers compared to the main course Trotz served: a blunt critique of Ovechkin’s game. Trotz shared what Nashville defensemen used to report about the Russian star: “As long as he’s standing still, he’s easy to cover, and he was doing a lot of standing.”

Now, after two seasons together, it’s clear that such directness connected Trotz and Ovechkin, who describe their relationship in equally bleepable terms. Says Ovechkin: “If I play s---, he have to give me s---. And he give s--- all the time. I’ll take it.” 

And Trotz: “If he trusts you, you can be very direct. I think he likes that. Don’t try to bulls--- him.”

Braden Holtby has his game in tune

The results are noticeable. When Ovechkin skates at five-on-five, the Capitals allow only 39.27 unblocked shot attempts per 60 minutes, his lowest on-ice mark since 2009–10, when they won the Presidents’ Trophy but fell in seven games to Montreal in the first round. Longtime Capitals assistant Blaine Forsythe sees Ovechkin disrupting more opposing breakouts by placing his stick into passing lanes and lingering longer in the defensive zone to ensure possession, rather than swooping wide to gain speed on the attack. “There’s no real offensive cheat anymore,” says Forsythe. “He makes more plays defensively than ever.”

In Trotz, Ovechkin also found someone who shared his postseason pain. Trotz never reached the conference finals in Nashville, either, and he does not run from his professional mortality. “I’m probably on the backside of my career too,” Trotz says. “The years start to go by and you’re like, I haven’t done this yet, I haven’t done that yet.” Looking at their pasts, it’s easy to see how they complement each other, like puzzle pieces. Before Trotz, Ovechkin never had a bench boss with previous NHL experience; the coach, meanwhile, inherited the world-class goal scorer the Predators always lacked.

Which is why Trotz also conceded this to Ovechkin: “I can’t teach you how to score goals and do the things you do.” Basically, the coach said, Ovechkin should keep dazzling as he would against New Jersey in the 2015–16 season opener, when he toe-dragged between his legs, undressed defenseman John Moore and roofed the puck in close quarters. Keep dominating as he would for his 499th career goal, hoofing the full length of Madison Square Garden’s rink in overtime while three Rangers watched haplessly. Keep the enthusiasm that made Ovechkin crash to his knees while trying to celebrate that game-winner, then face-plant in front of the Capitals’ bench.

And certainly keep what Trotz calls his “in-the-moment spirit,” a carpe diem attitude that was shaped two decades ago, when Ovechkin learned how quickly life could change.

Geoff Burke/NHLI via Getty Images

To be honest, I don’t remember what happened in ’95, ’96 and ’97,” Ovechkin says. “It was hard years. My memory is deleting.” But the best and worst parts remain.

He remembers that his brother Sergei was big and strong, a businessman and former wrestler. He remembers that Sergei, 14 years older than Alex, scraped through tough economic times in Russia during the early 1990s. And he remembers that while their mother, Tatiana, played basketball and their father, Mikhail, played soccer, Sergei introduced Alex to the ice.

Alex also remembers the events surrounding his 10th birthday. That day, while Alex was at a hockey tournament, Sergei was in a car accident. Two days later a blood clot took his life. Alex remembers playing hockey the day after Sergei died. His parents hoped competition would distract him, but he remembers only crying on the bench. “You’re still young,” he says. “You say O.K., what’s happening? He’s passed away. O.K., whatever. But the next day, you realize you didn’t hear his voice, you didn’t see him. He’s gone. Like, no more man.”

Now six years older than Sergei was when he died, Alex still honors his late brother’s memory on and off the ice. His gloves bear Cyrillic characters stitched into the thumbs—Sergei on the left, Ovechkin on the right. Alex never leaves Moscow without visiting his brother’s grave. When he thinks about Sergei, he thinks, “Thanks for bringing me hockey.” 

Mother Russia: Alex Ovechkin's mom made sure he got what he deserved

​​For years Sergei’s death was an off-limits topic for Alex both publicly and among family, the pain too raw. (Even now he demurs at first, saying, “Google it. All the answers are there.”) But time has made him curious about certain details fuzzed in memory. He says he’s asked Sergei’s friends what he was like as an adult. “They say, ‘We never see a guy with the same energy. He’s always straightforward. That’s what [we] like about him.’”

Energy and straightforward; the resemblance is easy to see. After all, what is Ovechkin if not electrifying? While his goal-scoring strikes fear in opponents, his celebrations sometimes scare even his teammates. “He’s crushed me a couple of times,” center Nicklas Backstrom says. During his rookie season Ovechkin dressed as Santa for the staff holiday party and handed out presents; this winter he donned a pink bunny suit for a team video. “He’s that way when most of the stars in the league are these conservative, don’t-want-to-rock-the-boat kind of kids,” says McPhee. Caps owner Ted Leonsis fondly calls Ovechkin “a unicorn.” 

Lately, though, those around Ovechkin see more straightforward in his vigor. “Back before, he was goofy all the time,” says Backstrom, his longtime pivot. “Now he’s matured a little bit.” Coaches say Ovechkin is more engaged during team meetings, asking questions and offering suggestions. “He can sit still for more than five minutes,” Forsythe says. Tatiana says he is preparing to defend his graduate-school dissertation in physical education. Earlier this season it was a big win for the team’s training staff when Ovechkin started drinking a fruit smoothie spiked with ginger, turmeric and Brazil nuts, which provided nutrients that blood tests showed his diet lacked. 

Though order sheets in Bauer’s factories still require that Ovechkin’s sticks reach higher quality-control levels than those of any other client, his local rep observes that Ovechkin has toughened his personal standards too. “Probably when he was younger he wasn’t as high maintenance, but now he’s at his peak,” Tim Parr says. 

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To Ovechkin, these are all evolutions that come naturally with age. “You can’t be 25 all the time,” he says. “Time to move forward and make a future.” His mother taught him that an athlete reaches peak mental performance around 30, which was when she won her second of two Olympic gold medals with Russia’s basketball team. “You already have the skill and the experience, your movement becomes the sharpest,” Tatiana says through an interpreter. “This is the time when a player should play his best game.” 

Tatiana, a former coach and current executive of Dynamo Moscow’s women’s squad, also sees a narrowing focus in her youngest son. “You have to be the No. 1 in everything,” she often told Alex. “Otherwise there’s no reason to just follow someone and be a tail. You have to be the No. 1.” And now? “His motivation is to be the No. 1, and he is growing.”

But Tatiana also taught Alex that windows close. “I’m still young,” he says, “but if your body can’t handle the pressure—the work, the game—it’s time to let it go and do something else. I know I can play my contract [which expires in 2020] easily. But I’m talking in the future, when you’re 35 or 36. Depends on how I’m going to feel, how my family going to feel. I don’t want to be in a position like, O.K., just give me a contract and I’ll be on the team and play every two games. I don’t want to be like that.”

While Ovechkin still proclaims, “I live my life to the maximum,” his version of carpe diem has manifested itself in new ways. Rather than treating each day as if it’s his last, now it’s about making all of them count. 

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Ovechkin and Washington got bludgeoned on March 20 at Consol Energy Center, falling 6–2 after Pittsburgh scored three times in 10 minutes during the third period. A Capitals win would’ve clinched the Metropolitan Division title. Instead it was their worst loss since the second game of the season.

The day of that game, Oct. 13, Ovechkin overslept, missing a team meeting. At practice he found Trotz and apologized, explaining that he had set his alarm to p.m. instead of a.m. Trotz told Ovechkin he would still sit against San Jose for breaking in-house rules. Ovechkin tried bargaining his punishment, offering to pay a fine instead. But Trotz was firm. The captain watched as the Sharks waxed Washington, 5–0. “Ovi might not say this, but it was probably good for everybody,” defenseman Brooks Orpik says. “If it happens to another guy, it’s probably forgotten pretty quickly. But I think a lot of people took notice of it.” 

Only the brave bet on the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup

The shift away from what MacLellan called a “star-player environment” did not take long. Once the Capitals promoted him from assistant GM last May, MacLellan prioritized veteran experience to complement the core. Past Stanley Cup winners such as Orpik, Justin Williams and Mike Richards were signed as free agents. A summer blockbuster trade sent Troy Brouwer to St. Louis, but the return stabilized Ovechkin and Backstrom’s right wing: T.J. Oshie’s 26 goals are the most by any Capital not named Ovechkin since Alexander Semin’s 28 in 2010–11. “We need to get over the hump organizationally,” MacLellan says. “These guys have been through it.”

Implicit in these moves is what Ovechkin readily admits: As superhuman as he seems, nothing lasts forever. “Maybe this is going to be my last year,” he says. “Maybe if we miss, next year I’m going to be traded to some team that’s going to rebuild. I don’t want to be in this position. I want to win it.”

More than anyone else, Ovechkin has tired of his Great Wait. “It’s about time he wins that,” Tatiana says of the Cup. All around him, the puzzle pieces appear locked into place: a trusted coach, a supportive cast, a singular focus. Will it make a difference? This much is certain: Ovechkin will attack his greatest mission—and the next stage of his career—with straight-forward energy.

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