This story ran in the Feb. 25, 2008 issue of Sports Illustrated
The most powerful woman in hockey was watching from a balcony as some of the Washington Capitals shot hoops on an indoor court, when the team’s majority owner, Ted Leonsis, urged her to come down for a free-throw-shooting contest. Leonsis, by his reckoning, has game. He played guard at John Jay High in Brooklyn in the early 1970s, the backcourtmate of a player who earned honorable mention all-city. Tatiana Ovechkina’s basketball bona fides are more formidable.
“In an instant she goes from this”—Leonsis pantomimed a staid middle-age woman—“to a player.” He paused, then smiled. “I think she beat me.”
Ovechkina, 57, was the on-court leader of the Soviet Union national teams that won Olympic gold medals in 1976 and ’80, one world championship and six European titles, and she was later voted best female point guard of the 20th century by readers of the Russian newspaper Sport Express. As for the free throw contest, when asked about it later, she complimented the engaging Leonsis—“He's moving so good, great coordination”—but she didn’t have to “think” about the outcome. She knew.
Just as when she did most of the negotiating on the 13-year, $124 million contract signed last month by her son—the incandescent Alexander Ovechkin might be the most exciting player since Bobby Orr—Tatiana shot straight and came out on top.
If Alexander technically represented himself in arranging the NHL’s first nine-figure deal, he made no move without Tatiana’s approval. She is not nominally her son’s agent. She is so much more. She is the matriarch, the progenitor of her son’s extraordinary athletic genes, his intractable resolve and his jersey number; Alexander wears number 8, the same as she did. Tatiana gives her son love, counsel, toughness, dinner—when she and her husband, Mikhail, make periodic visits to his home in the D.C. suburb of Arlington, Va.—and the occasional beating at games of H-O-R-S-E. “If you are a boss on a basketball court,” she says through an interpreter, “you bring the same qualities to life.”
Fourteen months after the Ovechkins fired respected agent Don Meehan, the family sat across from Leonsis, Capitals president Dick Patrick and general manager George McPhee wrangling over the details of a new contract. In a session that lasted more than four hours the parameters of the deal expanded and contracted: six years to 12 years, back to six, 12 again and, finally, 13. Tatiana’s English borders on the rudimentary, but she knows the language of negotiation: As president of the Moscow Dynamo women’s basketball team, she’s usually on the other side of the table.
The 22-year-old Ovechkin, who led the NHL with 48 goals through Sunday and had scored 23.1% of the Capitals’ goals since he entered the NHL in ’05, accepted $9 million for each of the first six years and $10 million for each of the next seven. The family did have a lawyer who was called into the meeting to look over the deal after it had been agreed to, but by not using an agent, Ovechkin saved at least $3.72 million (3% of the value of the contract).
“I wouldn’t call her uncompromising because she did, in fact, compromise,” McPhee says of Tatiana. “But Alex’s mother is very strong, very protective. And she knows what she wants.” What she and Alexander wanted was a no-trade clause, something McPhee had granted only once in his 10 years as G.M. In the end the two sides agreed that beginning in the seventh year of the contract, Alexander annually will submit a list of 10 teams to which he will not accept a trade.
The length of the deal—second only to New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro’s 15 years—gave Leonsis pause in the wake of the disastrous seven-year, $77 million contract he lavished on Jaromir Jagr in 2001. (After more than two seasons of middling play the Capitals exiled Jagr to the New York Rangers, yet they still pay $3.46 million of his annual salary.) But the Ovechkins had the hammer: If Alexander had not re-signed, he could have become a restricted free agent on July 1, prey to an offer sheet from another team that would have set the terms of a contract Washington would have felt obliged to match. “Put it this way,” another G.M. says, “if they didn’t get it done and somehow lost this kid, they might as well padlock the arena.”
After signing the contract Ovechkin scored in 11 of his next 15 games as Washington battled for the Southeast Division lead. The left wing had his second four-goal game of the season, on Jan. 31 against Montreal, assisting on the Capitals’ other goal in a 5–4 overtime victory. (His highlight was not the winning goal but number 3, a wicked snap shot through the legs of defenseman Mark Streit that beat goalie Cristobal Huet high to the glove side from 42 feet.) In addition to the five points, Ovechkin sustained the fifth broken nose of his career, from a Francis Bouillon shoulder; recorded five hits; and took a couple stitches in his mouth after he was hit by a puck in the first minute. As pure hockey theater, his virtuoso performance might have been the greatest one-man show in the regular season in a decade.
“Not in two years or five,” Tatiana said when asked if the contract would temper her son’s enthusiasm. “He doesn’t have the stardom disease. People who say these things are jealous.” But 13 years is a lifetime in sports. In 1995 the Hart Trophy winner was a 22-year-old Eric Lindros, now retired. Maybe this will be the contract-for-life that actually works, unlike the Jagr deal or Alexei Yashin’s 10-year burlesque with the Islanders. You can’t tell how the story will end any more than a winner of the Soviet Union’s Order of the Badge of Honor and Order of Friendship of the People could have imagined she would go on to spend part of her winters watching her son humiliate defensemen in an arena nine blocks from the White House.
She was born Tatiana Kabayeva in the shadow of the Moscow Dynamo sports complex, to a household in which sports mattered. Her father was a driver and played on company teams. She grew up in a time when schoolchildren in the U.S. were crouching under their desks during air-raid drills to protect themselves from a supposedly imminent Soviet nuclear attack. Tatiana was six when, in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev told diplomats from the West in Moscow, “We will bury you.” Twenty years later, as the playmaker on the Soviet national team, she directed the squad to the first Olympic women’s basketball gold medal, at the Montreal Games.
Last month, in her customary aisle seat at the Verizon Center, Tatiana, elegant in a green-and-gold print vest with fur collar and leather gloves that extended almost to the elbow, watched a Capitals–Ottawa Senators match with a do-not-disturb focus. Her husband, a former soccer player and taxi driver, and older son sat a few rows back. (Alexander’s parents have not sat together at his games for many years. “Superstition,” Tatiana said, through a translator.) She muttered the occasional instruction, including “pass across,” in English, when Washington defenseman Mike Green had the puck at the right point, but she never cheered, not even when her son beat goaltender Ray Emery with what proved to be the winning goal in a 4–2 Washington victory. She applauded twice during the game, once after Alexander Semin’s film-at-11 goal and again when a package of goalie Brent Johnson’s highlights was shown on the scoreboard. Several times during the game, Ovechkin glanced in his mother’s direction as if there was some telepathic connection.
“She has so much experience,” said Alexander. “We are both professional athletes. Mom is a strong athlete and a strong person.”
Strong? How do you calculate strength? During an interview the day before the game Tatiana stood, raised her right trouser leg and exhibited with shy pride a massive scar that begins above her ankle and rides up almost to mid-thigh. When she was seven, walking home from school with friends, a car struck her. Doctors wanted to amputate the mangled leg. There was one major surgery, then another, and several minor operations. She was hospitalized for a year. When she finally returned to school, doctors forbade her from even participating in gym class. She devised her own rehabilitation program, putting bricks in a plastic bag, hooking it around her foot and doing leg lifts. By the time she was 10, she was blossoming on a youth basketball team.
Strong? How do you measure the strength needed to survive the loss of a child, her firstborn? Sergei Ovechkin died in 1995, when he was in his early 20s, from complications following an automobile accident in Moscow. “We were all together, grieved all together, together we didn’t crumble and together, only together, we survived it,” Tatiana said. Tears appeared to well in her eyes. The interpreter turned and added, “She asks you to move on to other questions.” Asked if their son’s death triggered a hyperprotective response in a woman he has known 38 years, the senior Mikhail spread his arms wide and said, “Of course. Like a hen with her chickens, trying to protect, spreading her wings, keeping them together.”
Thirteen years later the family seems close, happy. Certainly it is wealthy beyond expectation. When Alexander stood up and announced they had a deal, Leonsis walked over and hugged Tatiana, telling her, “You were very tough and very fair.” Reflecting on that day, Leonsis says, “I missed my [late] mother, seeing not only how she loves her son but also how she launched him. She wants to give him all her advice and love, but he’s a grown-up now. It was very sweet to watch.”
The launch has been spectacular for Alexander, although, according to someone with knowledge of the family, Tatiana finds it difficult to see her son making more of his own decisions. When asked if Alexander’s success is a continuation of her own decorated career, Tatiana says, “Of course.”
“Sometimes I argue with my mom,” says Alexander, “but she gives me great advice. The best advice was not about the contract but about life: Just be yourself.”
And Mother Russia knows best.